A First-Timer’s Reflections on the Umbraco US Festival

A First-Timer’s Reflections on the Umbraco US Festival

I joined the Fyin.com team in April of this year. I was excited to work for an Umbraco Certified Gold Partner because I have been a fan of Umbraco since I first began using the CMS in 2009. I am not a developer, but I have managed hundreds of Umbraco web projects and have trained countless clients on how to use the CMS. David Dimmer, our Managing Director, invited me and Dan Bartels, one of our Senior .Net Developers, to join him at the Umbraco US Festival in Chicago. This was my first big Umbraco event and I was eager to see what happens at these shindigs!

Dan was kind enough to pick me up in Milwaukee on Wednesday (I left my car at the Amtrak station). We  headed south and made pretty good time until we got close to the Windy City. I should mention that Dan races cars as a hobby. Oh, we need to get over three lanes in the next five seconds? Not a problem. We stopped and picked up some tee shirts and hoodies that had been ordered for our team to wear at the Umbraco festival, and then continued our “drive” in the mind-blowing traffic that often comes with big cities.

Meanwhile, David was flying from Denver to Chicago. He somehow managed to fit over 100 engraved Yeti mugs into three suitcases, which clocked in at a combined weight of around 150 pounds. The three of us met up at a house in Bucktown, which David had rented via Airbnb. My room had a shelf that was entirely devoted to hockey - how's that for local flavor? We were missing some inserts for the Yeti mugs, which were supposed to have arrived in time for us to add them before distributing them the next morning. David, undeterred, called UPS and spoke with every person in the distribution center until he found someone who was willing to retrieve the package from a truck and make it available for pick-up. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Wednesday night was interesting. I live on a quiet cul-de-sac. I did not adequately prepare my brain for sleeping in the middle of Chicago. All night long, cars and ambulances whizzed by. If you live in a big city and somehow sleep soundly, I tip my hat to you. Dan, bless his soul, brought a case of Pepsi along and was kind enough to give one to me on Thursday morning so that I could get some caffeine on board. I am not a coffee drinker but sometimes I wish I were.  

We arrived at mHub, the venue, bright and early to get the Yeti mugs set up for distribution. The mugs intended for speakers and Umbraco HQ (Denmark) attendees were engraved with their names, so we needed to make sure we tracked down the right people for the right mugs. Attendees started arriving at around 8 a.m. We stood near the registration table with our impressive display of swag. While I don’t consider myself an extreme introvert, I do sometimes struggle with talking to new people. David is quite the opposite. He has the gift of gab and people are naturally drawn to him. Plus, he knew a lot of the attendees from past conferences, including Codegarden, which was held in Denmark in May.  Here is a scenario that played out several times:

David: “Hey, we brought you a Yeti mug. It will hold coffee, four fingers of bourbon, or two scoops of ice cream. How have you been? Are you going to London? We'll be there - I’m speaking at that event this year. We really need to get you out to the ski cabin this year. Stop and see us if you’re in Denver sometime. It’s beautiful out there - over 300 days of sunshine per year.”

Me: “Hi, here’s a mug for you.” [mumbles something about how you can use it for ice cream]

So yes, my social skills are lacking at times, but I did meet tons of people at the conference. I even introduced myself to Niels Hartvig, the CEO (Chief Unicorn) of Umbraco, who gave the keynote address. He touched on a lot of different topics during his talk. One of the main questions on everyone’s lips: when will Umbraco version 8 be released? Official answer: “when it’s ready.” Niels also talked about the increased focus on artificial intelligence, Umbraco Headless, and smoother integration of third-party products (“best of breed”). One of the most unique aspects of Umbraco is that it’s open source and the community contributes to its growth. Niels spoke about the “wisdom of the crowd,” which is such an important part of the success of Umbraco.

Anders Sorensen (also from Umbraco HQ in Denmark) gave the second talk of the day, “10 Ways to Grow Your Agency.” After that, the sessions split into two tracks: one for developers and one for everyone else. I attended the non-developer sessions. There, I had the opportunity to meet people in a smaller setting and talk about shared experiences. It was helpful to hear about challenges that other Umbraco-centric teams have experienced because I’d run into some of the same speed bumps over the years. I was reminded of just how vital it is for me to provide good communication to our client-partners.

Fyin team plus RaviThere was a happy hour scheduled after the last session ended. Dan and I waited together while our fearless leader connected with his friends from Umbraco HQ and other Gold Partners from around the globe. As time wore on, I could feel myself fading pretty fast (that sleepless night was catching up to me). I decided to catch an Uber and grab some dinner while Dan and David headed to the happy hour. The novelty of Uber hasn’t quite worn off for me yet - my driver arrived within two minutes! The bad news: I am pretty sure that Tony the Uber driver was a graduate of the Dan Bartels’ School of Driving. He zoomed in and around traffic, laid on his horn, and ended the ride by pulling a u-turn that caused us to miss a bumper by mere inches. I was relieved to arrive at The Chicago Diner in one piece. Dinner was great - I paired it with a nice Cabernet in hopes of forgetting about Tony’s driving. I headed back to the Airbnb and - I’m not proud of this - fell asleep at around 9 p.m.

Friday was somewhat of a repeat of Thursday. We arrived a bit later than the previous day since we didn’t have to worry about handing out the Yeti mugs. I again attended the “business track” sessions. I really enjoyed the talks I heard on Friday - tech people are often funnier than you’d expect! I also brought my Surface laptop along so that I could try to keep up with email and Skype messages while I was enjoying the conference. For me, the only real drawback of the festival was that I couldn’t eat the food (no plant-based options). However, there was a Subway nearby and it was easy enough to hoof it over there and grab a sub.

Friday ended much like Thursday did. There was another happy hour, though beer was also provided at the venue (by the organizers, I assume) and some people got an early start. David’s sister-in-law was performing in a play at a theater nearby, so we popped over to see her (and deliver a mug) before heading back to the Airbnb rental in Bucktown. Eventually, the three of us decided to grab some dinner. One great thing about Chicago is that there are lots of restaurants that cater to plant-based eaters. David chose a place called Handlebar. It was crowded and had a fun vibe - the kind of place that locals seem to like. I thought the food was great, and I appreciated that my co-workers were willing to go meatless so that I could enjoy a meal.

Dan had to get back home and headed out shortly after dinner. David and I swapped stories for a while (he has big plans for Fyin.com!) before calling it a night. He caught an early flight back to Denver before I was even awake on Saturday morning. I handled the check-out and then Ubered over to Union Station, where I caught the first train to Milwaukee at around 8:30. I knew this route (the Hiawatha) existed, but I’m kicking myself for not using it on previous trips to Chicago. I’m starting to think I may plan a trip to Chicago with my daughter in the spring. Between Amtrak and Uber, I can avoid Chicago traffic/parking and eliminate some stress/cussing.  

When I arrived home, I was tired but happy. I hadn’t known what to expect from the Umbraco US Festival but it was definitely worth the trip. The speakers were great and the attendees were friendly. There were definitely moments when I thought, “I have no idea what you are saying right now” and others when I fully clicked with the speaker and topic. As a project manager, I’ve always straddled the two worlds - technical and non-technical. I consider myself to be more technical than the average bear (after all, I know more than I probably want to about DNS, HTML, etc.) but obviously not as technical as a developer. However, the Umbraco US Festival did a nice job of making me feel like I was part of the community even as a non-developer. There were quite a few marketing professionals and business owners there, so there was a nice mix. Umbraco bills itself as the friendly CMS, and some of the folks working in HQ actually have job titles like “Major Friend Maker.” That might sound corny, but it’s actually pretty genuine. It was also fun to be around so many people who like what they do, and the future of Umbraco feels very solid. I also enjoyed the venue that was used for the conference. It was full of interesting artwork and seemed like a great fit for the event.

It was a whirlwind trip to Chicago but I walked away from it with a sincere appreciation for the Umbraco community. It was also a great chance to get to know a couple of Fyin.com team members a little better. Plus, we all have new Yeti mugs and Fyin.com hoodies! As I am not a coffee drinker, you’ll just have to wonder what I put in my mug.