A Festival of Firsts



My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms spaghetti. That’s how I felt whilst watching Pete Duncanson's brilliant talk on “How to get the website you need built”. An excessive amount of adrenaline was coursing through my veins, enhanced by the coffee I stupidly thought would be a good idea to drink. My fingers were numb and tingling, my hands were visibly shaking. I’m all for enjoying a good adrenaline rush, I’ve thrown myself out of planes, kayaked down waterfalls, hurtled down mountains on a snowboard and jumped off bridges with only a bit of rope to prevent my untimely demise. None of that compared to this.

Flash back to the beginning of September and after encouragement from some fellow Umbracians, I was filling in the proposal form to submit a talk for the Umbraco UK Festival. Having run a few meetups for the past 2 years I felt fairly confident that speaking in front of a bigger audience would be a simple level up for me. All I had was a title (which changed about 3 or 4 times) and a vague idea of what I wanted to talk about.

As the event drew closer I started preparing my slides, figuring out what I was going to say and how. My experience with presentations was limited to talking to a group of 5 - 20 people most of whom I know, in a very casual environment. I knew this was going to be different, so I decided to get serious. Knowing that my talk was going to be fairly technical I couldn’t wing it, I needed to know what I was doing. So I starting creating slide after slide of code samples, breaking down the content into smaller and smaller parts. At one point I had 160+ slides. It was a bit crazy.

Once I had a rough version prepared I started practicing, first just to myself, then in front of people. That was probably to most valuable thing I could have done. Getting feedback from my peers really helped me mould my talk into something a little less monotonous. After running through it about 7 times, the date for the Umbraco UK Festival had arrived.

It was my first time attending the festival and I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Hackathon the day before, which was also another first for me. The next 48 hours would prove to have some more firsts in store for me too. The venue this year was the Barbican Centre which is an amazing building. It’s absolutely huge and is quite a maze, but it’s a sight to behold. It felt like stepping into the Blade Runner universe and I loved it. Once I arrived, I spend about 5 minutes finding out where to go and thus began my first Umbraco UK Festival.

Room full of umbracians enjoying the hackathon

The Hackathon provides a place for many like minded developers to get together and in this case, work through some of the outstanding issues that were present on issues.umbraco.org. It began with Callum and Anthony from The Cogworks talking through the plan of attack for the day, find an issue that will take about an hour to fix, fix it, create a pull request and move to the next. Simple. Once I had settled and looked through the available issues I picked one that seemed like a 15 minute job, which was perfect. I fixed the issue fairly quickly, then read one of the comments which talked about a similar issue affecting the notification settings view for content items. So I thought I’d have a look and see if I could kill two bugs with one fix... The rest of the Hackathon involved me working on the same issue, which ended up converting some legacy views to the new shiny angular UI Umbraco has. It was tough but made possible by the brilliant support of all the other people in the room.

With the Hackathon done and my brain in need of a rest we all headed off to the UK Fest pre-party, organised by the magnificent Ravi Motha. It was brilliant to catch up with friends old and new, from all parts of the world. As far as I’m concerned (and I’m sure others would agree) the Umbraco community is one of the greatest tech communities on the planet, with some of the loveliest people. Needless to say the conversations lasted into the early hours.

The next day I was up early. I did another quick scan over my slides, got ready and headed back to the Barbican for the main event. The theme for the festival was 80s Miami, so I donned some shorts and the floweriest Hawaiian shirt I had. On arrival everyone was given a goody bag, a lanyard with details about the day ahead and a lei, which impressively most people wore all day. I grabbed myself a coffee and shortly after we all headed off to the theatre room where The Cogworks kicked off the day with a fun game involving getting 6 people up on stage and challenging them to dress each other in 80’s attire. It was a great, high energy start to the day.

The first talk I went to was Stephan's talk on the current progress of Umbraco v8 in the main room. Having spoken with Stephan about it the night before I was curious to see some of the code behind the magic. It was a really interesting talk focused on how they had re-architected the way nested content will work, such as doing away with the use of pre-values for data types, which funnily enough was something I would be mentioning in my talk later on. I’m looking forward to trying it out myself.

Next up was Ravi Motha's mental health focused presentation about how taking care of the most important part of our bodies (in the case of a developer, our brains) with a balance of exercise, hobbies, sleep etc is important. The simple act of talking, not just at events but to your colleagues and friends, or even someone you don’t know can be beneficial for both your health and wealth. I found it super insightful and the mantra “They want you to succeed” was something I will try to keep in mind.

After that we went over to the theatre to watch Pete Duncanson's brilliantly relatable talk about how to get the website you want build. It was great to learn how other people deal with the same issues pretty much every web team has to deal with.

Mike doing his talk and Umbraco UK Festival

And that leads me back to the beginning of this post. My time was drawing close, and as it did I began to realise, this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this. As other people who have had the pleasure of watching Pete talk, he has it down to an art-form. So when my name was call as the next speaker, I stood up to make my way down the stairs and feared for a split second that I might pass out thanks to the nerves. I got to the stage and took out my laptop and realised how much I was shaking. Taking a sip of water I showed Pete my hand and he repeated what Ravi has said during his talk, “They want you to succeed”. It genuinely helped me straighten myself out and a few moments later, I started my talk.

The next 30 - 40 minutes were a blur. I can’t remember if I was speaking too fast or messing up what I was talking about. Talking on stage with all lights pointing on you is definitely a scary experience, but once I started getting into the flow of it, I began to enjoy myself and calm down a bit. The supportiveness of the people around me really helped in that too. Before I knew it I was done and could relax, and get some food.

Photo of the meetups panel in full swing.

After a lunch of catching up with more people, I went over to the community space for a panel about meetups that I was asked to be on. Oddly enough, this felt far less intimidating that my presentation, I think due to the fact that I shared the stage with 5 other wonderful people, all involved in organising meetups from across Europe. It was a great opportunity to talk with them and the people in the audience about how we can help to foster and grow the Umbraco community. By the end of the festival Andrew Felton had started working on a new @umbeastmidlands meetup which is fantastic, I strongly advise anyone in the area to get involved.

Next up Per Ploug showcased the Headless Umbraco REST API which looks brilliant. I’ve been thinking about how Umbraco could be used to manage VR/AR experiences and I think this could be the very thing I need. With this addition, developers will be able to use Umbraco with any language they want, which will really open it up to a wider community and I’m super excited to see where it leads.

Dave Woestenborghs was next, taking us through how they optimized a search to be 3000x faster using xpath, with some examine examples too. It was really insightful to see how optimizing one part of a site can have a knock on effect to dramatically improve the overall performance of a website, as well as the different ways it can be achieved.

Niels Hartvig giving the Keynote speech at Umbraco Uk Festival.

Finally, after a quick coffee break it was time for The Chief Unicorn, Niels Hartvigs keynote. In the past year the number of Umbraco users, and the community around them has grown substantially, and with the uptake of Umbraco Cloud, they now have a larger support team that are doing a great job in helping developers and content editors with all of their issues. He then went to talk about the future of v7 and v8, saying they want to get v7 to a point where everything is as good as it can be. The demo of the upcoming tours feature in v7.8 really demonstrated that. It’s going to be a massive help for new Umbraco users, whether they are content editors or developers. Having a CMS that takes you step by step through how to use each feature is incredibly valuable, and the ability to create your own tours is super exciting.

After Niels was finished, The Cogworks finished things up with thanks to all the attendees and speakers, and then surprised the hell out of me by awarding me with an Umbraco Master Training Course for my 80's attire. Once again I had no idea how to react. Having none of the training courses under my belt, winning something that big was an huge deal.

By the end of the day I was genuinely overwhelmed. It was truly a festival of firsts for me.

  • First hackathon
  • First PR to Umbraco core
  • First Umbraco UK Fest
  • First time talking at a festival
  • First time talking on a panel
  • First time winning an Umbraco Master Training course
  • First time at The Barbican.

Needless to say I had a lot of fun, and was once again reminded how great the Umbraco community is. I would like to give a special thanks to Callum Whyte for encouraging me to do my talk and get involved with the panel, and to The Cogworks team as a whole for putting on such a stellar event. I left feeling inspired and motivated and I can’t wait for the next one.

Thanks to The Cogworks for providing some of the images for this post.