Callum stood in front of a montage of speaker photos

CodeBunTes-ing it up at Umbraco UK Festival 2023

While not my first Umbraco conference of 2023, I failed to write anything up for Spark in March this year for various reasons largely related to employment at the time. However thankfully times have moved on for the better for my second conference of the year. November 3rd saw the full return of the Umbraco UK Festival event in London, with the yearly event last having been able to run properly in 2019 before other major world events we all know about got in the way. Although I had managed to get along to the reopening event ‘Umbraco Together’ also held in London last November, this was the first year I had the opportunity to attend the full UK Fest. In prior years it had unfortunately had always clashed with another non-development event I was at, but handily in the years since that has now been moved to elsewhere in the calendar so this was an opportunity I wasn’t wanting to miss. Though even with all the best planning in the world, personal health issues that appeared without warning in the week immediately before meant my attendance was up in the air right up until making a decision late afternoon of the day beforehand.

Still, with everything finally in place, I was in London from the preceeding night ready to head across to the venue in Shoreditch bright and early on Friday morning. Being non-native to the capital, I’ve still not quite perfected the time needed to traverse the London Underground before rush hour so ended up there way earlier than I needed to be once again. But as I’d had to miss the previous evening pre-socialising, at least that did leave plenty of time to start saying hellos and getting reacquainted with the familiar faces before the full crowds for the day built up and all the rush of the sessions started. There were some faces I’ve been lucky enough to see at meetups since the Spring, but so many others that I’ve missed seeing in forever. Hopefully next time I’m at one of these events I’ll even be able to resume hugging during this initial social phase rather than having to stick to the seemingly more formal handshakes only as that’s always a great community aspect!

As everyone got settled into seats, the importance of this Umbraco community immediately followed through into the main welcome speech, with the team celebrating being able to bring back Umbraco UK Fest after so long. But also celebrating the number of meetup groups throughout the UK, contributions from the community (given this followed just after Hacktoberfest) and other events across the calendar that bring people together. A great reminder of the difference people make, and an excellent way to lead into the official tracks of the day, which were carefully split into two tracks to give a mix of more technical and wider talks.

For the first talk, I decided to drop into one given by Niels Lyngsø from Umbraco around Mounting your UI in the New Backoffice. There’s been no secret within the Umbraco community for a long time now that a whole new back office is coming in from Umbraco 14 due next year, with a complete replacement of the aging AngularJS-based back office with a one based on more modern web components. This has been available in early previews for a while already, however is something I’ve never found the time to dig into myself properly yet, so it was impressive to see it demoed for the first time on stage. Giving the more technical view on how the system hangs together starting from a largely empty base with nothing more than a logo in the top left, to adding every element in one by one from buttons to tabs to full pages via extensions. This approach also allows for easily adding your own elements on top, but also can allow removing or replacing existing ones, providing the direction for the remainder of the talk. Niels was able to walk through a very complete demo of how to use this to create and register a custom data property to represent credit cards, covering both the javascript side and the c# side of how things can be made to work together. As someone who has been stuck on a lot of older projects and older front end code for many years, I have to admit many of the new technologies and concepts shown are things I’ve only touched on during my more limited Vue/React work in recent history so there’s a lot I will have to learn here. However it definitely sparked that excitement for development I’ve missed so it’s something I’ve added to the list and am determined to throw myself into more over the coming months, no doubt with the help of the community and of course documentation which even this early on was teased as being full of enough detail on how to make all this work.

Niels Lyngsø demoing the install of Umbraco 14.
“Please hold while we prepare your new Umbraco 14 instance…”

With my head for development already excited I thankfully was able to resist the urge to jump straight onto a laptop in the corner by the swift move on to the next technically-focused talk from Louie Richardson on the same stage. Louie had decided to show how to create a massively performant website using the Astro javascript architecture, hooked in to the recently introduced Content Delivery API that had come with Umbraco 12 in June. I’d actually seen an earlier preview of this talk a few weeks prior at a Bristol meetup, but what with me being very tired that evening so much of it had went over my head at the time – yet seemed to make much more sense this time round. And blew me away with the performance that could be achieved with a relatively small amount of work. Even more impressive was just how on the bleeding edge some of the presented content was, with slides touching upon how it could use new features in Umbraco 13, and how those worked with this approach being discussed. This was a version of Umbraco which had only gone into Release Candidate status about 48 hours prior to the conference, and yet it sat smoothly within the whole talk. As someone who currently still prefers weeks of preparation and rehearsing on everything, I can only dream of one day being daring enough to include something so new in one of my own talks!

The third talk of the day, continuing on the technical track, was from Laura Weatherhead and took a look at Custom Property Converters using the v12 Content Delivery API. This was an interesting angle as though I’ve seen many demos in recent months on how to use the Content Delivery API, it’s tended to focus a lot on the out of the box functionality from Umbraco, whereas I’ve seen far less around how to customise or extend beyond this. To show how this could be done in the headless world Laura used a demo with a site which had the Personalisation Groups plugin from Andy Butland installed. Using the standard Content Delivery API, it was very easy to get back a node with all the possible personalised content variations included using the standard available API functionality. While this may be desirable, often you might only want to deliver back the personalised content already computed in the backend rather than sending everything back and having to re-implement all the logic in the frontend, especially if you have multiple frontends. To do this, a custom property converter was created which could access an additional header passed in from the frontend alongside the initial API request to help define the required target group, and then the converter code ensured only this variation would be returned in the API response. After this practical demo, there were also some teased examples of other things you can do such as custom selectors or custom filters to extend the Content Delivery API. When I did some early previewing of a beta copy of the Umbraco 12 API code back in the spring before docs were fully formed this was one of the biggest things I wish I’d have known how to do then. So certainly it provided some great ideas on how to extend the CMS that will be good to delve more deeply into with the now available full documentation in future projects.

In a brief break from the technical talks, after this I dropped in to the stream of UmbraCoffee, coming live from the conference for the day. I’ve been sat on so many of these every week on YouTube that I’d never miss a chance to see one live. After celebrating reaching their 300 episode milestone and going through more discussions with guests on the importance of community, before also giving a bit of an overview on how things were going at the conference, there was one sadder piece of news announcing that going forward UmbraCoffee will be moving to a new monthly format rather than weekly. I can fully understand the decision here just given the sheer amount of hard work and time involved to bring this to everyone week in week out, especially with so many other plates to spin too. And I don’t think there was anyone present who couldn’t thank them enough for all the work that’s gone into this over the years and wishes them continued success with the new monthly format. I guess I’ll just now have to readjust my Google Calendar for these bigger and better monthly editions instead, even if I will genuinely miss having that little weekly event reminder popping up after so long!

Callum and Marcin prepare to go live with umbraCoffee #300 from the stage at Umbraco UK Festival
“You get a bag of umbraCoffee. And you get a bag of umbraCoffee! You all get a bag of umbraCoffee!”

Coming back more to the scheduled tracks, the last talk of the morning I attended was from Jason Elkin and Joe Glombek around Bringing Legacy Apps Back to Life with Web Components. This followed on from a lot of the concepts introduced with earlier talks on Umbraco 14 around the shiny new technologies that are coming with the back office. But rather than only look at the new, it took the more realistic view that while we’d all always like to be using the latest and greatest, quite often you’re going to be stuck with that older legacy solution for some time that can’t be immediately upgraded. With that in mind though, the bulk of the talk went into some clever tips and tricks on how you could still glue some of those newer concepts into the older back office systems. Some of this mixing may not please code purists, but as a viable option to allow migrating parts now before moving fully over to the newer back office system later without having to throw away all the code in the process, it provided a refreshing and realistic approach to a common problem. Again as a more traditional back end heavy developer I have to admit a lot of these newer front end technologies would require some intense diving into if I were ever to attempt something like this myself, but what developer doesn’t love a challenge?

After a break both for lunch, provided by a local firm heavily into ensuring all their packaging was fully sustainable, and to allow for more networking within the community, it was into the afternoon talks. As someone from the Greater Manchester area, I really couldn’t not go to the talk brought to the conference from Phil Whittaker and Jon Whitter from the Umbraco Manchester team around how they’d helped build up the meetup groups in both the Manchester and Leeds areas of the country. There was talk of some of the lower points in recent years, which as an attendee to Manchester meetups for over 10 years now I’ve lived through myself, but this was followed swiftly by how those times were used as the spur to make things better. With endless tips and advice on getting together the right team which hopefully can help other meetup groups throughout the country grow and expand, once again showing the community spirit we all love. The ending to this was probably the oddest one for me personally as it’s the first time I’ve seen my own name up on a slide due to the next Umbraco Manchester meetup on November 16th also featuring what will be my first ever talk at an Umbraco event. How that will go down is yet to be seen (there’ll be a blog post in a few weeks I’m sure), but without a doubt having such a supportive local team has helped me get started immensely there, and hopefully will see the start of me bringing more talks to the community further afield around the country in the new year.

Slide from the Umbraco Manchester team proclaiming 'It's about creating an elaborate pyramid scheme'
“Not a cult!”

Without me even having to move from my seat, the next talk up on the main stage was from Rachel Breeze on Escaping the Developer Rut. I have to admit to having seen this talk before back in the hometown of Manchester, but I also knew it was one worth seeing again as its one of those talks that mixes tooling ideas with some of the wider parts of the whole developer experience. Developers will often talk about the exciting parts of their code and tech or their routes into such things. But it’s much rarer for people to talk about the pitfalls they may fall into or where things don’t go as planned, or where they may ultimately end up in a rut so its easy to think it never happens. Even though this is something everyone experiences at some point! After starting out talking around some dreamier ideas to get out of a rut, some practical and some not, the talk then gave some specific developer focused ideas, such as looking at clever automation tools or configuration to improve code quality, and practical steps that can reduce the amount of time being lost to what seem like never-ending or unescapable tasks. Though a common and highly important theme throughout the talk was the human element – including the importance of identifying when you’re in a rut so you can actually take steps, making sure to take the time to celebrate those successes and where things are going right, and ensuring self care is never forgotten in among all of this.

Following on from that, the next talk I dropped along to was from Damiaan Peeters, and involved information on Optimising Websites for a Connected World. The starting point of this was around considering areas of the world where access to high speed connectivity can’t just be taken for granted, presenting a real world case study of Madagascar where use of older mobile hardware and power cuts were a frequent occurence. After that the talk then looked at a whole host of ways websites could be improved both for developers working with Umbraco in such areas, by avoiding dependencies on remote databases that may be hosted on different continents with associated lag, as well as for end users by improving images, and correctly optimising and bundling other static resources. All of this has always been excellent advice for any developer, but can all too easily be overlooked when you’re only ever used to developing on high speed connections and powerful machines. With current initiatives such as the recently announced Umbraco Sustainability Challenge gaining traction, the whole talk could almost have acted as a checklist on ‘things we can all do to make the our sites more sustainable’ regardless of the local infrastructure, so it’ll be great to see if many of these tips appear in the results from the various people signed up to the challenge when the results start coming through next spring.

With that everyone rejoined to the single track for the last talk of the day. As always seems to happen with these conferences, the day had flown by at a wild speed, and it was already time for the final Umbraco Keynote. Delivered by Filip Bech-Larsen this was the chance for us to hear more about the visions of Umbraco HQ both in recent history and in the upcoming months ahead. Complete with details on how they want to push headless, sustainability and community involvement as well as expand the commercial aspects of the products. With a good mix of technical, products and visions, it would have been hard for anyone not to have ended the day enthused about what we can expect to come over the next 12 months. A fitting wrap up to an excellent day of inspiration, and a nice way to lead in to a more relaxed evening of socialising in the afterparty nearby. As always I wish I could have stayed later for this as even if my naturally risk-averse spirit really didn’t lend itself well to some of the card games we were playing, it was great to be able to unwind with people. However sadly trains back to the North were beckoning (and naturally showing up delayed/cancelled) so I head to head back home. But I did so complete with a head full of fresh ideas and a list of new things to experiment further with (have I ever mentioned I have a terrible habit of writing lists). And as was announced during the day too, while one conference may have been at a close, it’s already only a few more months until we can all be together again in the UK at the next Umbraco Spark conference in March 2024.

Callum celebrating everyone involved stood by a photo montage of all the day's speakers
“Didn’t this TV gameshow only used to have 9 squares? “

Thanks to everyone involved with organising, talking, sponsoring or attending, and #H5YR as ever! (You’ll have to imagine an automated website feed reposting that for yourself this time)

Read more about the festival at:-