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Web mastery: it don’t come easy

Webmaster training evolves in a business-centric market.

So, you want to be a webmaster? Maybe you’ve looked at a few Web sites and you figure you could do better. The way some sites look, how could you do worse, right? Or maybe you’ve stayed up a few nights and taught yourself FrontPage, and you’re hooked. It doesn’t matter how you got here, but you’re at the point where you’re ready to put in some serious time and spend some serious money to learn more about how to make beautiful, fully functional Web sites. You’re ready for the Master course.

Before you put down any money for training, take some time to learn enough to make a good choice about your learning options. There are a lot of choices out there if you want to learn about Web site design, engineering, and maintenance. If you’re not careful, you could end up spending months and thousands of dollars learning a lot about the wrong subject, or learning nothing at all.

The alternative to formal training is learning on your own while you earn money. Despite the fact that many IT folks are self-taught, you can’t earn as quickly when you’re working at the same time. Web site development is independent contract work, so if you’re an employee, faster work can lead to promotions and bonuses. Plus, whether you’re an independent contractor or an employee, faster work will be rewarded with better pay or promotions. So learning as you go is not necessarily the best course of action.

Learning as you go can also lead to a patchwork of experience with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. You can end up knowing a lot about one or two areas and being typecast by potential recruiters and headhunters. What you need is a strategy for developing your Web mastery skills to make sure you’re learning what you need to learn. You can use your work experiences to test out what you’re learning in the classroom, but you must plan on some formal training.

Web sites are put together these days with many different tools. There is no standard (despite what the training and certification folks say) about which tools should be used. Some sites are put together with the digital equivalent of spit and chicken wire. It’s hard to tell what holds a site together until you get a look behind the scenes. Without the right training, you could be faced with a task of nightmarish complexity. With the right training, you can tackle the same situation with confidence.

What you are first going to have to decide is what kind of webmaster you want to be: all-around generalist or a specialist? Being a generalist is a fine idea if you want to put together small and medium-sized sites and handle all or most of the design and implementation yourself. It’s not so fine when you have a large site with multiple pages and features, or a tie-in with a mainframe-based back-end. The more complex the project, the more likely it is that you will drive yourself crazy or put yourself out of business trying to get it all done. Of course, generalists can better lead projects of this size and hire or outsource specialists as needed.

General practice training

If you want to be a generalist, you can spend much of your training time learning the HTML page development tools used for making small and medium-sized sites. Start your list with FrontPage, Macromedia Dreamweaver, or Adobe GoLive, and you’ll be in good shape creating HTML pages. Because a site is composed of not only HTML pages but also scripts, database elements, and queries, this is only the beginning of your drive toward being a good Web generalist. But it is a necessary first step.

When you shop for classes on these applications, make sure you read the fine print about who the class is designed for. Call the training organization and ask specific questions about the class before you take it. You’re looking for a class designed for Web site professionals.

The Web site for the company that makes the software is a good place to start looking for the right kind of training. Look for lists of authorized training providers. At the Macromedia site, for example, you can browse through the course offerings and learn about becoming a Dreamweaver certified developer. You can view the class schedules on the sites; classes are offered frequently in areas around the country. You can even register for and take classes online.

I said that you could safely spend most of your time learning about development tools. You need to spend part of your training time on some soft skills in two important areas. First, concentrate on learning about Web site usability and how to make a site user-friendly. You won’t find many courses on this topic, but reading a few good books will help. Jakob Nielsen has written two books on Web site usability, including his latest, “Homepage Usability: 50 Web Sites Deconstructed.”

Round out your soft-skills training by taking a few classes in project management, conflict resolution, and leadership. Remember, as a generalist, you’re going to be the general contractor for various Web sites. Learning how to solve people problems is as important as learning how to solve technical ones.

Becoming a specialist

Medical specialists start narrowing their focus only after they’ve completed a few years of generalist training. If you want to specialize in a Web segment such as site designing, security, or administration, at least a year or two of experience as a generalist will give you a firm foundation.

When you start shopping for Web specialist training, pay careful attention to what is covered in the classes to make sure you’re not signing up for an introductory course in disguise. Make sure that the topics covered in class are ones you need to learn about, and that they are covered in the depth you need. Close questioning of the training vendor and the instructor will give you this information.

Make sure, too, that you are embarking on the appropriate training track for your area of specialization. The name of the track and the courses in the track should match up with your desires. For example, if you visit the Web site for the Certified Internet Webmaster program from Prosoft, you can read the table of job roles to learn how they match up with CIW tracks.

Another webmaster vendor is Sysoft. Sysoft’s certifications are geared around specific webmaster job titles, including Content Manager and eBusiness Webmaster.

Media production, as well as design and layout, are covered in CIW’s Site Designer Series by Prosoft. Listed next to the job category are some helpful job titles: Web designers, creative directors, and art directors, among others. On the other hand, people who want to be certified as systems architects or programmers could opt for the Application Developer Series or the Enterprise Developer Series.

Certification in general

While no standards exist for webmaster training, they do exist for webmaster certification. I mentioned the Dreamweaver certification and the CIW. There are others, including application certifications and general Web training programs. I recommend following one of these tracks if you are looking for solid Web-related training. Using certification/training programs gives you a series of comprehensive training courses to take. You don’t have to take all the courses or become certified, but you’ve got a clear path to follow.

So whether you’re a generalist or a specialist, becoming a webmaster is an achievable goal. You need to take charge of your own education and do some research to find the best training for you. It’s worth the investment, though; genuine masters are hard to find.

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