Disillusioned developer to MVP - my Umbraco journey

A headshot of Rachel Breeze

Senior Developer

7 minute read

Building confidence through blogging, speaking, meetups, mentoring and hacks, all with the support of my team and the amazing Umbraco developer community

Rachel holding her Umbraco MVP Award

Rachel with her MVP award (and lockdown hair)

In May this year I was named as an Umbraco MVP (Most Valued Person), alongside my awesome colleague Danny Lancaster. To say I am blown away and proud is an understatement.

This is the first year the MVP awards were nominated by the community and the first year that the reasons for the nominations were read out. Danny and I were nominated for our work as part of the community accessibility team, where we've worked on the back office of the Umbraco platform. Our aim was to make it easier and more friendly to use for everyone, regardless of their circumstances or access needs. Incidentally, Danny is out of this year’s total of 61 MVPs, one of only a handful of MVPs that are not developers, and I believe the only test analyst to be awarded an MVP.

Where it began

I’ve spent some time since pinching myself and analysing (or overthinking) my journey, and I want to share some of my experiences with you. Being awarded Umbraco MVP has made me realise that, like the saying goes “it takes a village to raise a child”, in my opinion “it takes a community to raise a developer”.

I think it’s fair to say when I joined Sigma in 2013, I was feeling slightly burnt out by our industry, I had low confidence and was (and to some extent still am) full of self-doubt.

Through the friendship and support of my colleagues at Sigma, I have regained my joy for programming and been given the support to share that joy with the wider community. At Sigma, development is about working with clients to develop inclusive solutions that work for everyone. For me, knowing what we build has user needs and inclusion at the heart of it means so much more than writing software for the sake of it.

Working for a company and having colleagues that cheer on everyone’s achievements means a lot. Sigma has an MS Teams channel dedicated to saying thank you to our colleagues and celebrating achievements.

Prior to joining Sigma, I had taken part in the inaugural Hack Manchester 24 Hour Hackathon as part of the Manchester Girl Geeks team. We went on to win two awards but there was little celebration of this at my then place of work. I can’t help but contrast this to the support and cheering myself and Danny got when we were awarded Umbraco MVP, with my colleagues recognising us both on social media, and on the ’Cheers channel’

 

When two of your team get a mention for making a product more accessible on #WorldProductDay it’s hard not to get something in your eye. Bloody chuffed

Picture of Hilary Stephenson

Hilary Stephenson

My Umbraco journey started before joining Sigma, but since joining it has become my main development platform. Through Sigma I have attended official Umbraco training sessions and certification exams with Doug Robar and Marc Goodson, both of whom are passionate about Umbraco and fired my love of Umbraco.

As well as being a content management system Umbraco is a community, with an annual conference – CodeGarden – and a number of festivals in Europe, Australia, and the USA; and CodeCabin the Umbraco developer unconference.

Make CMS Not War Banner

Banner from CodeGarden 2015

The power of meetups

Sigma has also supported my attendance at various Umbraco events. I attended my first Umbraco Conference, CodeGarden 2015, and as every attendee will tell you, CodeGarden is super friendly. Attendees are encouraged to leave gaps in groups, Pacman style, with a gap so that anyone can join in a conversation, there are lots of great talks and it is unlike any other conference you will attend.

I attended my first Umbraco UK Festival in 2016, which was a two-day event, where the first day was a hackathon. The warm welcome we received from the attendees, from Cogworks, and from Sebastiaan Janssen from Umbraco HQ was something that stands out.

Kanban board from Umbraco UK Festival Hackathon 2016

Kanban board from Umbraco UK Festival Hackathon 2016

Whether you were new to the community or had been attending for years, everyone was greeted like a long lost friend, and there was help on hand for those of us spinning up Umbraco Core for bug fixing for the first time. Carole, Sven, and I teamed up to look at a few Umbraco issues, swapping knowledge on tips and tricks for Visual Studio and Git integrations, as well as. The last time I attended the UK Festival hackathon, me and the rest of the accessibility team were there to help out with accessibility-related pull requests and questions.

About Umbraco

When I first started developing with Umbraco, it was on versions with limited or no support for load balancing. Now Umbraco is on version 8 with much-improved support for load balancing, and it comes in a number of flavours:

  • Umbraco CMS, which is the free, open source version of Umbraco
  • Umbraco Uno, which is fully managed and hosted versions of Umbraco with no need for development
  • Umbraco Cloud, which is Umbraco’s software as a service (SAAS) offering, providing managed and hosted version of the platform
  • Umbraco Heartcore, which is the headless CMS version of Umbraco.

Because Umbraco is so flexible and built on the Microsoft.Net environment, it can be integrated with other systems. For example in our work with Alexander Dennis, we integrated with Syspro, an ERP system. I’m currently integrating Umbraco with Dynamics 365 and Moodle (a learning management system) for a client that sells publications, events, and training courses.

We have even managed to add and achieve 70% code coverage to our Umbraco 7 HealthTech Connect project for NICE.

I’m also incredibly proud of the fact that we use Umbraco to help build and deliver charity websites, including our work for Diversity Role Models, https://www.diversityrolemodels.org/, Mind https://www.mind.org.uk/- delivering an average increase in monthly donations of more than 70%, and finally Air Ambulance Kent Surrey and Sussex https://www.aakss.org.uk/, who recently raised over £1 million through their coronavirus emergency appeal we helped to build.

Girl Guide's badge "Girls Can Do Anything"

I mentioned at the start of the article I joined Sigma with low confidence so I wanted to expand a bit more on how they and the community have helped me build my confidence up (so much so that I was supposed to speak at CodeGarden in 2020 before it was cancelled).

Being part of the community and showing your work

At Sigma we practice talks in front of one another, and will happily peer review articles prior to publishing them. We’ve also got a great content team that will help give guidance on the articles we write.

After attending a number of 24 hour hacks with Hack Manchester and mentored the junior hack in 2015 alongside my colleague James Wilkinson. In 2016 Macc Tech invited me to talk about Hackathons; this was my first ever talk in front of a group of peers.

From there I went on to become a CodeDojo mentor, Stem Ambassador and organised and ran a small microbit coding event with the local Girl Guides.

Over the years my whole teams has encouraged and supported me and others:

  • We co-organised and took part in the Manchester #HomelessHack, which lead to a monthly meetup helping to maintain the website for Street Support https://streetsupport.net/
  • In 2018/19 Sigma was one of the companies that supported Manchester Digital’s TeachToo initiative, which helped BTEC students apply what they’re learning in the real world. As well has helping to shape the course, I delivered a session on development methodologies for the BTEC students
  • In 2019 Sigma introduced volunteer days, and for mine, I was a panellist at a Stemettes event
  • Also in 2019 Sigma supported Danny and I as we helped form the Umbraco Back Office Accessibility Teamalongside Mike, Jan, Tiffany, and Matt

I’m also very lucky to have found the Dot Net North meetup, who have supported me and who run some really interesting meetups and are part of the DDD network, which means I’ve met some great people at DDD North events too. Even though I’m a .NET developer, everything we do is underpinned by a database, so by attending events like SQL Saturday and SQL Bits not only have I learned new things, but I’ve had to stop being a wallflower and speak to people!

The Umbraco community too has been incredibly supportive and helped with my confidence by inviting me to write for 24days.in and for Skrift. Being invited as a guest, alongside my colleague Danny to umbraCoffee with some of the other accessibility team members. This stands out as a memorable event; even it’s just for when the lights went out while we were recording and I got a blank on the CodeGarden question https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK1BlHREkzI&t=2s.

I look forward to helping drive accessibility forward in the back office, helping to organise some interesting talks for the Manchester Umbraco meetup and contributing more to Umbraco this year.

I owe a huge thank you to so many people, so much so that I’m often accused of trying to write an Oscar acceptance speech. But to summarise I want to say that it’s thanks to my friends and colleagues at Sigma for supporting and encouraging me, especially Hil, Dave and Sarah, for the pep talks when I have my mild “what have I gotten myself into now panic”. My confidence has grown.

I also want to say thank you to Gemma and the team behind HackManchester for reminding me that coding is fun, and that initial win in 2012 which helped set me on this path. To Mike Iriving and Tony for asking me to speak at MaccTech.

And finally a big thanks to the Dot Net North and the whole Umbraco community for being so friendly welcoming and inspiring.

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