My Open Source Journey — An Umbraco Tale

I’d started The Cogworks in 2006 with 2 other colleagues and we’d done what every self respecting agency did ‘back in the day’. We’d built our very own, ‘better than everyone else's’ content management system. Ours was, I think you’ll agree, quite imaginatively named ‘The CogCMS’... what else!

The CogCMS in all it's glory

The CogCMS in all it's glory

One day, sometime around the middle of 2008 sat in our small basement office in Covent Garden, London, we’d just finished converting the CogCMS from classic ASP into ASP.NET. We wowed in wonder at the shininess of the user interface, the all new nested table ‘div’ layout of the backoffice, the new SQL database.. .and I had a dream. A dream to make it bigger and better than anyone else's... I had plans, dreams, aspirations, why couldn’t we do what others had done before us? We could invest millions in bean bags, scooters, huge offices with oodles of space for a team of 3 developers, charging companies enormous licence fees, locking them into annual 18% support and upgrade retainers, whilst keeping that valuable source code safe and sound under lock and key on a CD ROM in a safe in our office.

I wanted me some of that enterprise goodness...

But what if...?

But, just before I did, I had a thought...what if this system already existed? What if there was something out there already that was better than the CogCMS could ever be! What if there was a different way?

So I did a quick Google for ‘.NET content management systems’, and low and behold, there in the ‘open source’ .NET content management system with a slightly odd name - Umbraco!

Now ‘Open Source’ wasn’t something I’d particularly considered at that time. I had a basic knowledge of it but had never really been involved in an open source project. I guess along with most people I had the stereotypical impression of open source developers being a group of geeks sat in separate bedrooms, all wearing either an Iron Maiden t-shirt or Star Trek uniform, writing code on the ‘command line’ until 0430 in the morning, eating pizza and trying to hack the CIA for fun.

So I was intrigued, particularly as this was on the Microsoft stack, which historically was very much closed source.

So I grabbed one of my colleagues, Tim Saunders and we installed it...and pretty much over night The CogCMS was discarded like a used tissue! We’d found a system that was built pretty much the same way we’d architected the CogCMS, it was already a fairly mature product (V4 had literally launched the week before) and already had a decent sized developer community actively working on it.

So I was intrigued, particularly as this was on the Microsoft stack, which historically was very much closed source.

And so started my Open Source community journey...and to be honest, I haven’t looked back since - I dived headlong straight in at the deep end!

Building connections

The first thing I noticed was how friendly the Umbraco community was.

So for me the most important thing about being a part of any community real or virtual is the building of connections with different people. That’s what makes life interesting. Meeting people from a variety of places and backgrounds. I’d played about with Twitter but didn’t really ‘get it’ properly at that point, until I started to ‘hangout’ and chat with the rest of the Umbraco community such as Warren Buckley, Darren Ferguson, Dirk De Grave, Richard Soeteman, Lee Kelleher and of course Niels and Per. I very quickly found it an invaluable tool for making friends and learning.

The first thing I noticed was how friendly the Umbraco community was. I’d heard stories about other open source communities being a bit ‘cliquey’, but having asked some pretty basic questions on, tweeting out a link and within 5 - 10 minutes receiving multiple answers - it made you feel all warm inside :)

If I’d have tried getting that kind of response about a Sharepoint issue from Microsoft at that time, I think I would have had a very different experience!

Try to give at least as much if not more than you receive and it will pay dividends!

Realising that Umbraco was of course free to use, I felt I needed to give something back. And the way I felt that I could add most value was by getting involved in the community.

I’m not and never have been a ‘proper’ back-end developer, so I couldn’t really contribute much by way of technical know-how or specific ‘dev-tips’, so I started to think of other ways I could make a difference. I created a simple Umbraco package which was a Balsamiq Mockups layout for the Umbraco backoffice that people could use to create wireframes for their end users.

At that time you needed a certain amount of Karma on to be allowed to buy a Codegarden ticket, so I got on Twitter and hassled all my new friends. I managed to get most of them to ‘like’ it which bumped up my Karma considerably. It was an amazing feeling. A sense of belonging was building inside me!

But I felt I needed to do more…

And so the UK community grows

Back then there were no meetups or events in the UK at all. Darren Ferguson had attempted to organise an informal drinks in London for the Umbraco 4 launch, but it had been cancelled due to low interest. So after chatting, we started to arrange the first ‘proper’ Umbraco meetup in London. It was held at the LBi offices in Brick Lane on 6th August 2009 and Niels kindly flew over. I think we had around 20 people show up.

My other Cogworks colleague Dan Ashton designed a special ‘Chuck Norris’ t-shirt and some other swag, we arranged a few talks and that was that. There is still a page on the Umbraco blog announcing it and if you’re interested some very embarrassing photos courtesy of Doug Robar if you’d care to see some very young familiar faces.

Umbraco 5th Birthday

So I’d got to know Warren Buckley really well at that point and we knew that the Umbraco 5th birthday was approaching. We had an idea to put on a birthday party, which we did, on a boat on the Thames on the 16th February 2010...we had balloons, party hats and of course, no birthday party is complete without a birthday cake made by my wife! She’d seen how much I’d got involved in the Umbraco community and could see the benefits of being a part of it, so she suggested making one. This just shows that the Umbraco community love spreads a lot further than just development :)

A number of other countries took our lead and arranged their own parties as well on the same day, but the London event had the highest attendance with 120 Umbracians including Per from the Umbraco HQ which was amazing!

5th birthday cake - Doug Robar

5th birthday cake - Doug Robar

London Umbraco Meetup

Just after the 5th birthday in March 2010, I started the London Umbraco Meetup. Again at the time it was driven by a desire to grow the Umbraco community and I lived and work in London so it was a good place to start! The first few were pretty informal events in a pub in Covent Garden. I remember the first one being myself and Ravi Motha and one other person enjoying possibly a few too many beers! This has grown considerably since then with help from Ravi, Lotte Pitcher and Callum Whyte the meetup has expanded into a Christmas quiz, summer BBQ’s, talks, seminars and a range of other monthly events.

An early London meetup - usually involved a pub :)

An early London meetup - usually involved a pub :)

The Umbraco Festival Movement is born

Inspired by the success of the 5th birthday and having returned from my first Codegarden in 2010, I came up with the concept of the Umbraco UK Festival. I didn’t want to call it a conference, I wanted it to be something more than just a boring developer event. I wanted to bring some of the energy that you can only really get at Codegarden back to the UK for those who couldn’t get to Copenhagen. So I wanted it to be a celebration of Umbraco...A festival seemed fitting!

I also wanted to keep the attendance cost as low as possible, so the first 2 years were free to attend. I found some cost effective venues, paid for catering and arranged speakers. The UK festival is now in it’s 9th year which is absolutely amazing, it has grown from 1 track and 100 attendees to multiple tracks, lightning talks, a range of workshops and around 350 people from around the world. It’s also inspired a number of other Umbraco communities around the world to follow suit with a plethora of annual events each year. You can see the other festivals on

A chance to make a difference!

So as mentioned earlier, it was in 2010 that I attended my first Codegarden in Copenhagen. It was an amazing feeling to finally put faces to so many of the names I’d been chatting to on Twitter. I’d of course met a lot of the UK community at the 5th birthday party, but this was a chance to meet some of the others I’d only spoken to on Twitter.

To put the icing on the cake and seal my place in and my thoughts about the Umbraco community, I was honoured to be asked by Niels to write a manifesto for Umbraco whilst at Codegarden. I had totally forgotten I’d written this until I started thinking back whilst writing this article.

I remember it being quite a daunting task at the time. I guess the reason Niels asked me was because of the work I’d put into helping build the Umbraco community in the UK over the previous couple of years and it had become and still is the most active in the world.

And funnily enough...I’ve just had a quick look and found a copy of the manifesto in the waybackmachine archives. back in the day! back in the day!

I’m sitting here in my garden with a cider and a tear in my eye. That might be due to the crazy weekend on a family camp I’ve just had or it may be that the words in the manifesto ring as true today as they ever did. Yes the wording probably needs a tweak here and there, but the feeling I have now for the community and what it means to me is still as strong. Anyway, here are the words:

Umbraco is transparent and honest. It exists as an open framework to empower you to make a difference to the way content is delivered.

Umbraco lives because of its community which thrives on collaboration and is passionate about technology. We work together to bring about change.

If you want change

Ask someone! The community likes change, it's where we came from and how we started. It’s part of our core and what keeps it fresh and being constantly improved.

If you are making changes

Don't be scared to help. Changes are brought about by constructive collaboration and teamwork. Be part of the community and get involved. It’s how great things happen.

No one ego wins, the sum of the parts makes a greater whole than any individual can provide, so work together and bring life to the community.

And most importantly...

Keep it fun

We like to have fun, get together, celebrate, get to know each other to create a great friendly community who are happy to help each other. Make an effort and you'll reap the benefits and rewards.

Being part of a community makes you feel like part of something. Be a part of Umbraco and it will become a part of you.

You’re not alone - is that the meaning of life?

So discovering Umbraco and diving into the open source community suddenly changed my working life - I wasn’t just alone in a flat or 1 of 3 in a basement, I was 1 of a few thousand Umbracians across the world...

Now I’m not usually one for thinking too deeply into the why’s and what if’s of life (ask my wife, she’ll be more than happy to tell you how in the ‘now’ I really am!) but writing this article has made me take a step back, stop and think for a second. The last line of the manifesto I’d written really struck a chord with me - ‘Being part of a community makes you feel like part of something. Be a part of Umbraco and it will become a part of you.’

When I’d started the Cogworks in 2006, we didn’t really have a direction, we were ‘just another web agency’. We’d had a good start, we’d been lucky to have had a few previous clients contact us to help them out, but when those projects finished we’d struggled a bit. So we started to dabble and try a bit of everything. Let’s try some SEO, let’s see what digital marketing projects we can do, but once you start doing that you’re fighting in an ever expanding marketplace with more and more competition.

We were still just 3 guys stuck in a basement. I forgot to mention earlier that at the same time as starting a new business - The Cogworks - I’d found out I was having a baby which led to us deciding to move house to accommodate my growing family, as well as planning a wedding! So pretty much the 4 most difficult things in life you can possibly imagine doing, all happened at exactly the same time. So as you can probably imagine the pressure to make sure money was coming into the family pot was considerable at that time.

Also, prior to starting The Cogworks I’d been working pretty much by myself for a couple of years at home in a 1 bedroom flat. So for quite a long time I had been a ‘lone ranger’ which as I’m sure some of you reading this article will know is a pretty lonely place sometimes. Sometimes it can be hours in-between hearing another human voice which does make you go a little bit stir crazy after a while with a little cabin fever thrown into the mix. Sometimes I’d find myself talking to myself just to hear a voice!

So discovering Umbraco and diving into the open source community suddenly changed my working life - I wasn’t just alone in a flat or 1 of 3 in a basement, I was 1 of a few thousand Umbracians across the world and it gave me a huge boost knowing I was a part of something greater.

I’m not going to be as dramatic as saying that Umbraco and Open Source saved my life because that is not the case, but it has certainly changed my life, expanded my experiences and horizons and it has given me a purpose. And I’ve loved every minute of it for over 10 years now!

So for anyone reading this who is new to Umbraco and the world of open source and communities then I’d heartily recommend getting involved. Even if you are not a developer you can make a difference.

Join or even start a meetup, make some connections and think of ways you can help out, it doesn’t have to cost money, just a little time and effort can go a long way.

The more you help, the better you’ll feel and the greater the rewards will be not just in your work life, but also in your personal life. anyone who’s managed to stay with DJ Shallcross until 0330 at Codegarden will know, I always like to finish on a crowd pleaser. So as written beautifully by the late, great Bob Marley - ‘One Love! One Heart!, Let's get together and feel all right’ ;-)

Adam Shallcross

Adam has been involved in the interweb since the late 90’s when Netscape Navigator was a thing and a 56k dial up modem at home was ‘zippy’! Since then he’s been a front-end developer, a back-end developer, a sysadmin, a project manager, an account manager, a husband, a dad, a (semi) successful business owner and more recently an international DJ.

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