uWestFest - Umbraco in North America is alive and well

For the second year in a row we flew out to North America last week to attend and speak at the USA Umbraco conference uWestFest. I just wanted to write up some thoughts while they are still fresh aimed mainly at those folks in Europe who want to know what it is like so they can gauge if they should go. Short summary is that it was a blast and you should really think about going.

All the pictures in this post are from last years festival and taken by the rather wonderful legend that is Douglas Robar.

The North American community (at least measured by number of installs) is growing by 50% year on year and is now the biggest by quite a way with 34,000+ last year (stats from Niels keynote presentation). It’s a growing market and they have a lot of big brands doing a lot of crazy things with Umbraco. Last year’s event had 80+ people, this years had 120+. It’s a good time to get involved.

Conference on tour

This year was based in Orlando in Disney World (last years was in Vegas) and it looks like the conference will be hitting the road every year to try to pull in different folks from different parts of the vast country that is North America. This was evidently working as at the start a quick show of hands suggested that 70% of those attending were first timers. Oddly both destinations have had a fake Eiffel Tower near by, not sure if that is a requirement or not?

It is difficult for my European brain to understand just how big the country is and how long it can take people to travel within their own county. I can leave my front door in Huddersfield UK in the morning and can be eating lunch any one of twenty plus countries. Some of the folks coming to the conference had to do multiple flights and never have to get their passport out. Mind blowing and one of the main drivers for why the conference moves around, shorten the distance people have to travel.

Another reason they moved it this year was to make it within striking distance of us Europeans in the hope more of us would jump over and share our knowledge and "quirky ways" with the locals. I’m happy to say there was a staggering 200% increase in Europeans attending this time, 3 of us went. Way to go us...

Hats off to Stephen Roberts and Anders Burla for making the effort this year and being great company too. Doug Robar once again came but as he’s officially an America I’m not counting him as a European although he is a great travel companion and speaks the local lingo.

Get your ass to Mars

More Europeans should think about going. We add a little something extra I think and everyone seems to love our accents, even Stephens. Everyone there is very welcoming and listens to what you have to say purely because they appreciate we’ve travelled so far (9 hours direct for me). Don’t get me wrong it is a long way, it will cost you some money and time but it will be GREAT time and still counts as work.

The distance sort of make it a bit of a working vacation (normally I’d say holiday but it takes a while to lose the local lingo you pick up while over there). You can’t drop in, watch the conference and then go. You’d be too asleep to get anything out of it and waste all that time and money for no gain. The conference is only a day but to give your body a chance of fighting the jetlag you need a few days before hand and another afterwards. If you are going all that way you might as well stay a few days and see some sights. We stayed slap bang in the middle of Disney World and it would have been wrong to not go out, visit a park or three, take in some rides and see some fireworks.

Make the most of the time away

Don’t take work with you. I emailed all my clients and said "I’m out of time, got to go, see you in a week". It was honest, they understood and knew when I’d be getting back. Set an auto reply message on your inbox and then never check your emails until you return. Enjoy the conference instead, it has after all cost quite a bit to be there, everything will still be waiting for you when you get back. As Doug's opening presentation says, have "no regrets" about being stuck in a hotel room trying to RDP onto a server via cheap wifi while everyone else is having fun down stairs.

If going solo don’t worry about being lonely or not knowing anyone, due to the welcoming nature of our American cousins you soon find yourself surrounded by friends and if not jump on twitter and put a shout out for where everyone is having a beer (Umbracians hunt in packs) then go find them, stick your hand out and say "hi, can I buy you a beer" it works a treat.

Just as with Code Garden, or any of the other festivals, the people you meet all have a shared interest (dare I say passion) in Umbraco. So if conversation dries up or you need an ice breaker you can always fall back to discussing Umbraco at any time. Just ask someone a nice open question and sit back and listen..."What do you think of the Grid?", "What is your best site on Umbraco?" all good stuff.

At events like this I like to get to know the people, I’m lucky that I know the tech quite well so it’s the people I like to meet. You get to hear about what they work on, how they do it, where they do it and all this can spark off new ideas or just some funny jokes or interesting conversation however to me it is important it is not Umbraco 24/7. I need some fun times to give the brain a chance to recover. There is a lot to take in.

The conference had 2 tracks of speakers covering a wide range of topics. Niels does the keynote which is always good to watch (as he’s very funny) and always includes a nice up to date "where we are and this is where we are going" bit which you don’t always get via other mediums. With only 120 folk there you also don’t have to spread yourself too thin, if you want to talk to Per about the Grid you can catch him by the coffee machine. That’s one of the nice parts of the smaller festivals. I doubt this will last as I’m expecting uWestFest to continue to grow year on year. Now it has some history I think the ball is rolling and more and more attendees will be signing up for next year and the years after.

Fighting the Jetlag

Jetlag is a killer so allow for it both in sleep and eating. Your body really gets thrown out of sync and for me I really struggle with finding something to eat that I want to eat at the right time. This lead to more than a few hunts for different foods simply because "I’m craving something but not sure what" at really odd times of the day. I ended up never really hungry or full, just constantly feeling like I could eat "something" I just didn’t know what it was. This feeling is not helped by the locals wanting to kindly take you for steak in the evening (9pm local time) when your body says it 2am and you should be in bed and soon to get up for breakfast!

Staying awake to enjoy the evening networking to me is really important so I know I need to get onto local time pretty quick, I found setting my clock to local time (and ideally not looking at it) and a few beers with friends into the evening seemed to help power through. Cat naps will only make you more sleepy and getting up early because its "11am at home" does not help.

When coming back home sleep is the only cure I know, avoid the booze!

So let’s talk costs:

We went for 4 nights in total, 2 before the conference and 1 after. With flying time and a day off on our return we lost 4 work days.

Conference ticket

£140 or free if you do a talk (and get picked to present) as I did (it was a good talk on ReactJS, I’ll be presenting it again at Code Garden this year if you want to watch it).

Flights

Direct from Manchester: £350 economy or £700 for Business Class. Having done business class for Vegas I totally understand why it exists, it makes the flight a fun part of the trip and you turn up quite refreshed. You also get out first to face immigration which can take a long time, another bonus. The free booze helps of course but on the way back I slept for 5 hours straight in my comfy big seat. Worth every penny for such a short trip and given the length of flight, I’ve not got 2 weeks on a beach to recover like the holiday makers in the back of the plane.

Hotel

Sharing a room made this more affordable, American rooms are huge and all have 2 double beds in. £50 per night if you share, double it if not.

Breakfast

Typical all you can eat buffet in the hotel £20

Lunch/Dinner

Whatever takes your fancy, lots to choose from on the scale of $4 hotdogs to $100 prime steaks with all the trimmings. America loves its food (especially if it is covered in a gallon of fake maple syrup) so finding food is not the problem no matter what your budget. I allowed £25 per meal and as a result had a nice pot to spend, sometimes you’ll get a burger and fries for £8 which means you can splash out on that fancy steak for £40 next time (an ok steak was £16 ish by the way) depends on your company, found out what everyone is comfy with and try to accommodate.

Beer money

The international currency of booze is a great way to meet new folks, it is not essential of course but I like socialising over a beer or three with friends new and old. The cost of this is mostly covered in the above budgets I spent a little more as I like to buy people drinks. So you know a beer in Disney/Vegas was about $7 or £5. Not quite Copenhagen prices but not far off, the curse of being at a holiday destination with lots to see and do. Don’t let the price get in the way, the experiences of hanging out at the pre and post conference meet ups are priceless, eat nothing but toast when you get home for a week and you’ll be back in credit in no time.

Entertainment

You’re in a different part of the world, don’t stay in your room doing spreadsheets get out there and do something wild you can’t do anywhere else. In Vegas we fired machine guns and raced super cars. In Orlando we "did" Disney with 2 days in the parks. All of this was personally funded and not on the company dime so no one can complain. This all sounds like a holiday, but think of it as acclimatisation. You can’t climb straight up Everest, you have to spend some time at base camp getting over the jetlag to make the most of your time "on the clock" at the conference so it might as well be fun. American readers of course could skip all the days either side if the boss is heartless and won’t let you have any educational fun.

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Put it on the credit card or save up in advance either way be sure to just enjoy this opportunity, experiences last longer than bug fixes after all. Allow £100 per day off. Make the most of the hotel pool if you want to really chill out cheaply, another benefit of going in March, sunshine! Your pool side bar bill might end up costing you the same amount though.

Tipping

Allow anything from 10%-20% and ask a local for the rules, it got complicated really quickly!

Grand total:

£1600 ish (£1300 of company money) or £1300 ish (£1000 of company money) with cheaper flights.

That is about €2200

Plus of course the lost "work days", but this is enrichment so should be put in perspective. How much money might you save when you come back with some nuggets of golden knowledge that you might not have had if you didn’t go, what contacts have you made who might want to hire your company?

You can do a lot with that sort of money in your pocket, it’s the sort of money we would say to clients "if only you’d let me spend some time on X it could be amazing" and they never do.

So how about we show them how it is done?

Be amazing and for once...DO IT!

See uwestfest.com for details.