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Useful Umbraco Packages - Part 2

Following on from my previous article, here are some more packages that I find really useful and use in the majority of my Umbraco builds.


No list would be complete without the daddy of Umbraco packages, the package so good that half of it's features got snaffled up into the core, uComponents! Written by Lee Kelleher and his band of mad scientists, this essential package contains a ton of useful DataTypes, XSLT extensions and assorted other goodies. I can't actually remember the last time I set up an Umbraco site without installing this package. To find out more about the package, you can check out it's rather impressive documentation. You can download the package from here.

AttackMonkey Custom Menus

This is one of mine. I've worked on a few sites where users would do things they weren't supposed to, like delete important pages like the site contact form, or in one case, the entire site settings section. I originally used to have some code in each site I built, but that was a massive pain in the arse, so I made a version of my code that could be managed via a config file. If you install the package, it allows you to configure completely custom menus for tree items (media or content), by either DocType or by Node ID. You can also configure it to just remove specific menu items. It's really quick and easy to set up, and it's been pretty useful on some of the larger more complex sites that I've built. I'm currenlty in the process of updating this bad boy for v7. Download the package here.


This is a handy package that was made by the awesome Mr Doug Robar, the chap who does the level 1 UK Umbraco training, who is also one of the nicest guys in the Umbraco community. It comes in two flavours, a free version and a pro version that you can unlock by buying a license. The package gives you a way of resizing and caching images to use on your site, so that you dont have to get the client to upload images in multiple sizes. They can just upload the largest version, and then you can use ImageGen to resize for the smaller versions. The free version does most of the things you might want, but the pro version has a lot of handy features, like the ability to crop images, watermark them and add text to them (useful for adding copyright notices etc). The pro version of the cost £125 at the time of writing, which is very reasonable! The cool thing is that you can use ImageGen in non-Umbraco sites too! To find out more about this package, check out the ImageGen website.

Media Icons

This is a realy simple package, but it really adds a lot of value for the actual CMS users in my opinion. What does it do? It simply swaps out the rather boring default media library icon for files ones that reflect the file extension on the file in the library. It ships with icons for most common file formats, such as:

  • doc/docx
  • flv
  • mov
  • pdf
  • ppt/pptx
  • swf
  • txt
  • xls/xslx
  • zip

It's dead easy to add extra icons for any other file types you might need (just save an icon image to a special folder named after the extension of the file you want to associate it with). Basically, editors can easily tell from the icon in the media tree exactly what the file type is without needing to open it. You can gran the package here.

Digibiz Advanced Media Picker

Prior to v7, the Umbraco media picker was a bit, errr, basic. That all changed when Jeroen Breuer realease the Digibiz Advanced Media Picker (or DAMP as it's often known). This package is basically a media picker ON CRACK. It adds a ton of conveniences to the media picker, as well as having the ability to integrate with the various cropping datatypes and with third party services like Pixlr. You can event restrict users to only picking specific types of media with the pickers, which can be extremely handy for stopping editors from doing something daft like selecting a PDF as a thumbnail image for a news article. This is another package that makes it onto pretty much every single Umbraco site that I build! Grab the package here.

More Tips For Aspiring Freelancers

I've been thinking about this some more since I wrote the last lot, so I've decided to add some more!

16. Be flexible

As a freelancer, hopefully you'll get to work with a lot of different companies. Each of those companies will have different work processes. Some might use Git, some SVN and some TFS *shudder*. Some may not use any source control at all. Some clients have a very rigorous set of procedures that must be followed to the letter, others are more freeform. You need to be able to slot in to a new client's team without too much fuss and hassle, so you have to learn to be flexible. It can be hard to learn, especially if you're used to doing things a certain way, but its a very important mindset to master.

17. Be upfront about costs

Unless you're one of those offshore outsourcing shops, the chances are you're an expensive resource. Make sure you're totally upfront about your costs. What's your hourly rate? Do you charge expenses for on-site/travel? If so, how much? Do you charge for late payment, if so how much and at what point? Do you do project rates? Will the client need to fork out for licenses for anything that you're building? No-one likes hidden surprises, so make sure you're client knows exactly how much they're paying, and what for.

18. Be Transparent

Keep your clients updated. Let them know how their project is going (if you're not in-house). If you're going to miss a deadline, let them know, as far in advance as possible, and tell them why. If you use third party frameworks for their site, let them know what you're going to use.

19. Hourly vs Project rates

There are two main ways you're likely to get paid as a freelancer. By the hour (the easiest one to manage) and by project. Hourly is less hassle, and you get paid for all of the hours that you work. Yay! Sometimes though, people will want you to cost a project and charge a project rate. This is harder and takes a lot of practice to get the balance right. To start with, make sure you have a decent spec to work from, that details ALL of the functionality of the site, IN WRITING. Draft up a functional spec of exactly what you are going to build, and you'll be able to use that as a basis for your pricing, and as a deliverables list for the client. Don't forget to include leeway for testing, bug fixing, and the inevitable project creep. Also watch out for clients trying to sneak extra stuff in without paying. If it's not in the spec, it's extra (unless you're feeling generous).

20. Get to know your clients business

If you're going to help a client with their website or we based systems, you need to take the time to find out about what it is they do. What are their current systems? What are their frustrations with the current website, what do they want the website to DO for them? Taking a bit of time to really get to know a client can be invaluable, and provide you with additional ideas and suggestions to help them get the most out of their sites.

21. Get it in writing

ALWAYS get it in writing. Agreeing something important over the phone or face to face is great, but make doubly sure you get them to email it to you as well so you have it in writing. If you don't, I can GUARANTEE that at some point it'll come back and bite you in the arse. The same goes for you too, make sure that everything important is communicated in a way that can be referred back to later. That way, you can minimise problems later on when the client is adamant that you said something that you didn't.

22. Learn to communicate to with non-techy folk

Some of the most successful freelancers I know are the ones who can communicate complex technical issues in a way that will make sense to your average client or account manager. If you go in blazing with your hardcore technical explanation, your average person is just going to glaze over and stop paying attention. They'll just start to hear WONK WONK WONK like the kids in Peanuts. It can be a hard skill to master, especially if you're not used to client facing, but it's VERY important.

23. Testing is not optional

If you've come from a large company with it's own dedicated testing teams, you might feel like testing is beneath you. As a freelancer, it ISN'T. You need to master the art of breaking stuff, and master it well. If you're lucky, your client might have a testing team, but in most cases they won't. Try and think like a normal user of the site, rather than the guy who wrote it and knows what the user is SUPPOSED to do. You can always get your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/gran to have a bash at your sites if you're feeling brave.

24. Resist the urge to use cool stuff just because you can

When you find cool new technologies, there's always the temptation to shoehorn it into your projects so that you get a chance to play with it. Unless there's a legitimate business reason why the site you are working on needs to use the technology, resist the urge. Your client isn't paying you to use their site as a cool experiment with the latest hot Node.js based gizmo, they're paying you to build a solid site that does exactly what they want. I've seen projects get badly derailed because someone thought it would be fun to use some new technology because it seemed fun, only to find out it wasn't as suitable as they thought halfway through development....... That isn't to say you should NEVER use new stuff, you should just be careful to use it when there's actually a need to do so.

25. You won't always get to do the fun stuff

You're at the end of the big project, the management organise a huge all expenses paid piss up, and you're not invited. You shake hands with the team, and you're on your merry way. Cue the Incredible Hulk music as you stride wistfully off into the sunset. There are some clients who go out of their way to make you feel like part of the company, even when you're not, and they should be cherished. But equally, there are a lot that just see you as a resource, you come in, do the thing they needed doing, then they send you on your way (albeit with a bunch of money, yay). The fact is, you're probably getting paid considerably more than the in-house team, so don't feel too bad if they don't take you on the company retreat to Aruba :P

26. Find your balance

This is another one I learnt the hard way. As a freelancer, especially early on, you're terrified that the work will dry up, or you REALLY want to make a name for yourself, so you work yourself HARD. 18+ hour days become the norm, your skin takes on the pallor of marble, and your friends and family start to wonder if you're still alive. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get a good work/life balance. Spend some time doing cool stuff with your family, go snowboarding for a couple of weeks, hell, go climb Mount Fuji, I did. If you can get the balance right, you can enjoy being a freelancer, and still get to do fun rewarding stuff. You'll be less stressed, you won't nuke your relationships with your friends and the world will seem like a happier, brighter place. It took me getting SERIOUSLY ill to get this one right, now I think I have a pretty good balance.

27. Write Good Specs

If you're working directly for a client, be sure to write a proper spec for the project. It gives you something to work from, it lets the client know exactly what they're getting and if you're working with a designer, it helps them to design the site properly. I can guarantee that AT LEAST 50% of your clients won't read the spec, but as long as they sign it off, you have more bargaining power when they come back asking for extra features for free. A good spec should contain a sitemap, detail things like target browsers, mobile strategy and any frameworks that will be used. It should also explain all of the different page types and how they will work, along with any additional behind the scenes integration work, for example forms being sent to a CRM.

Using Route Hijacking to Enable Page Caching in Umbraco

Back in the days of Web Forms, there were two main ways of implementing caching in Umbraco. You could cache the parts of the pages that were macros using the Umbraco marco caching features, or you could use the built in ASP.Net control and page level caching features (which perform slightly better than the Umbraco ones).

Now that Umbraco support MVC views, you no longer have the option to specify page level caching in your page templates like you could in the header of your web forms master templates, where you could add something like this to your master pages:

<%@ OutputCache Duration="60" VaryByParam="None"%>

You can't specify caching within a view itself, you either have to use the caching when you render a partial macro,  which you can do using Umbraco or you have to use an OutputCache directive on your action controllers.

Recently I worked on a site in Umbraco 6 where there were about five or six news/blog sections, each with their own RSS feeds, and then there was a master RSS feed in the root of the site that aggregated them all. The RSS feeds were pretty popular, so I really wanted to cache them for around 60 seconds, to help boost performance.

Using Umbraco partial caching, I'd have had to create a partial to render the RSS, and then had an "outer" view that loaded the partial and applied the caching, which I wasn't keen on, I'd rather cache the whole thing. Enter route hijacking in Umbraco. What is route hijacking? It gives you the ability to create your own controllers that will handle DocTypes and also Templates in a custom manner. As these allow you to override the ActionResult, that means you can apply an output caching directive to those templates.

So, in my example site, I have a Document Type called "RssFeed" that I would like to implement caching on for the WHOLE template. How would I do this? It's REALLY easy.

In my extensions project for my site (which contains all of my custom models, logic and helper methods), I added a class called "RssFeedController" with the following code:

using System;
using System.Collections.Generic;
using System.Linq;
using System.Text;
using System.Web.Mvc;
using Umbraco.Web.Models;
namespace MySite.UmbracoExtensions.Controllers { public class RssFeedController : Umbraco.Web.Mvc.RenderMvcController { [OutputCache(Duration = 60)] public ActionResult Index(RenderModel model) { return base.Index(model); } } }

Note, that the name of the controller is very important, it should be the name of the DocType, with all spaces etc removed, followed by the word "Controller". So if your page was called "Awesome Feed" the class name would be "AwesomeFeedController". Notice the OutputCache declaration, all I'm doing is spcifying that the output should be cached for 60 seconds. There's no need to vary the cache, as the feeds can't be altered by the querystring or by user etc.

Compile the code and add the DLL to your site and it should be up and running! All Your RSS feeds are now cached for 60 seconds, and the best part is, they're cached by path, so each of the separate feeds is cached independantly.

This is only a very basic example, you can do a lot more with this, like vary the cache by parameters, specify whether the content should be cached locally or on the server, and even set different options for other allowed templates for the same DocType.

You can find out more about route hijacking  in the Umbraco docs, and more detailed information on how output caching works in MVC  on the MSDN. I hope this proves useful to someone :)

Tips For Aspiring Freelancers

This year I'll have been freelancing for 7 years. Prior to that I worked at agencies for 8 years. I get to work with all sorts of people, and something I often get asked is "what's the secret to being a freelancer?". Honestly, it's just hard work. Being a freelancer can be harder work than some peple think, but if you're prepared to put in the hours, it can be hugely rewarding. I haven't looked back since I quit my last full time job.

Here are some useful bits of info that I've picked up over the years that have helped me (not all of them are things I've done, some are things I've come across in my travels).

1. Love what you do

Sounds obvious, but if you don't have a passion for web dev, you'll never progress very far. This industry is VERY fast paced compared to others, you need to keep on top of current trends and technologies. Doing that is much easier if you actually enjoy reading up on cool new CSS tricks and server side technologies. It'll also come across when you're talking to clients, enthusiuasm is infectious!

2. Open source tools are your friend

Regardless of whether you're a PHP, ASP.NET, Rails or even Coldfusion kind of person, open source software and frameworks can be invaluable. I use a lot of open source tools for my work and they save me a lot of time during development. Make CMS websites? Find an open source solution that floats your boat, and use it. I switched from home brewed CMS systems to Umbraco (and occasionally a few other systems) a few years back, and I haven't looked back. You'll spend less time wrinting tedious CRUD code, and more time making the website work EXACTLY how the client wants. Tools like Grunt can be invaluable time savers during dev as well.

3. Focus Up

As a freelancer, you need to be able to focus on work, especially if you work from home. Make sure your work area is free from distractions. If you keep wondering off to play on the Xbox, or hopping on to Warcraft, you're not going to get much work done. I have a separate room at home for work, so I can concentrate without interruptions.

4. Learn to say no

Early in your career, you'll be tempted to say yes to everything that gets thrown your way. Unless the wolves are literally massing at your door, don't. Some jobs just aren't worth it. If a client/job looks like it's going to be a nightmare, consider saying no. Be polite and professional about it. Warning signs include things like clients changing their mind every 30 seconds, poorly defined specifications, clients constantly trying to get extra functionality for free, ANYONE who asks you to build Amazon in a few weeks and my own personal favourite "I can't afford to pay you, but you can have a share of the awesome profits".

5. Remember the rainy days

Unless you're lucky enough to have a long term regular contract, there will be periods where you aren't working. Don't forget to save for those occasions. Also, don't forget that you don't get sick pay, a lesson I learned the hard way when I was diagnosed with Cancer a few months after going freelance!

6. Get organised

If you've ever seen the first episode of Black Books where Bernard does his tax return, you'll know what I'm talking about here. Organise your freelance work properly and you'll make your life so much easier. Keep track of expenses and payments, otherwise, come tax return time, you'll be running round desperately trying to find receipts and you'll end up not claiming back expenses you should have. The same applies to your work load. Make sure your work schedule is well organised and you won't end up overbooking yourself and pulling 20 hour+ days to meet all of your commitments.

7. Code nicely

There's a saying that you should always write your code as if the next person who will work with it is a 7ft angry psychopath who knows where you live. It's true too. NO ONE likes having to work on crappy code, and it doesn't take much effort to format your code properly and comment it if needed. I've seen freelancers (and inhouse guys) who go out of their way to write overly complex code out of the mistaken belief it will make them somehow indespensible. It won't. Other freelancers and your client's inhouse guys will hate you forever, and that means you're less likely to get more work if word gets out you write awful code.

8. Give credit where it's due

As a freelancer, you are often treated better than inhouse guys when it comes to voicing ideas. You can say something that the inhouse team has been saying for years, and the higher ups will listen to you, because you're expensive (I've always found this stupid, but it's happened a few times in my career). If that happens, be sure to make sure the inhouse guys get all the credit. Otherwise you'll get a reputation for being a dick who steals credit/ideas.

9. Share your toys

Don't be precious about your code. If you write something cool, share it with the wider developer community. It's scary sharing your code for the first time, but it can be very rewarding. You'll make new friends and contacts, and in some cases you may even get work out of it. I participate in the awesome Umbraco community and find it very rewarding and dare I say, fun! If the inhouse guys at your clients want to know how stuff works, show them! I got started in the industry picking the brains of a ASP/VBScript freelancer back in the day. He helped me to get into server side programming and the rest is history! People will remember you if you're friendly and helpful and are more likely to recommend you to others. 

10. Approach agencies directly

It's OK to use recruitment agencies, but they charge 25%+ on top of your hourly rates to companies, which makes them expensive. If, like me, you work with design agencies, approach them directly about freelance work. You might not get anything out of it straight away, but by going to them directly, you can sell yourself better than a recruitment agency probably will, and if you get on, you may get work out of it. From a design agency point of view a freelancer they employ directly and have at least spoken to is probably cheaper/better than some random schmo that a recuiter sends over.

11. Don't be a dick

This was sort of covered in #8, but be nice. Sweeping in to a client's office, telling them that all their inhouse guys are idiots and that you are the only one that can sort out their problems makes you look like a total arsehat. People won't like you much, and when they leave, they won't be recommending you when their new boss asks if they know any good freelancers.

12. You WILL end up doing a lot of crappy jobs

Early in my career I got brought into agencies a lot to fix projects that other freelancers had messed up, bailed on, or otherwise not done properly. I won't lie, after the first couple, it gets pretty soul destroying. I had a period of about two years where about 60% of my time was spent sorting out problems caused by the same two or three guys. Get used to it, and use it as a learning tool. I learnt as much about how NOT to do things from those years as I did about coding. I also learnt a LOT about debugging and troubleshooting problematic code. Stick it out, and as clients come to know and trust you, you'll get better work!

13. Chasing payments

This is the really unglamorous part. When you work full time, money just appears in your bank account every month, yay! As a freelancer you have to deal with clients that are crappy payers. They pay late, sometimes by many months, or try to weasel out of paying for stuff. Dedicate at LEAST a day a month to chasing down payments that are overdue, and make sure you get paid. In the UK, you're entitled to charge interest on overdue invoices, so make sure you mention that on your invoices/contracts (also, be VERY clear about your terms of payment, e.g. 30 days). It's surprising how quickly people will pay up when you start issueing invoices with interest on. I also have a very small blacklist of places I won't work for any more, as they've been so bad with payments, I'd rather not waste my time with them again.

14. Learn new things

The industry changes very rapidly, as discussed in #1. As a freelancer, you aren't going to get sent on training courses to help develop your career. If you want to learn stuff, you have to do it yourself. Even if you aren't necessarily going to use new technologies, it's worth at least looking into them, so that you can consider them for your projects. Try and spend a few hours a week investigating what's hot in your field of expertise. Don't be one of those guys that still codes in ASP/VBScript because that's "what you know" and never move on. Otherwise you just may find yourself at the point where your skills are all totally useless (that said, I STILL occasionally get ASP/VBScript work, believe it or not).

15. Network!!!

As a freelancer, you're only going to get hired if people know who you are! Go to conferences, if there are local developer meetups try and go so you can meet new folks and network. If you're super ambitious, write a blog and promote the crap out of it, talk at conferences, hell, write a book. It all helps to get your name out there so that people will consider hiring you. I do occasionally go through recuitment agencies, but I prefer to work with clients directly, as you can build up a better relationship that way. Also, I cannot stress enough how important it is to network with account handlers and project managers. They move around a lot more than us techy types do, and if they've worked with you and they liked you, there's a chnace they'll recommend you at their next job!

That'll do for the moment! I hope this proves useful to someone :) I may end up expanding on this at some point in the future if there's any interest.

Useful Umbraco Packages - Part 1

There are literally hundreds of packages that are available now on the Umbraco Package Library. For a beginner it can be quite hard to work out which packages still work, which ones are useful and what to use them for. I tend to find that there are a handful of packages that make it onto nearly every website that I build. In this series of posts, I'm going to look at some of my go to Umbraco packages in a bit of detail to show you why they're useful and what you can use it for.

Umbraco Contour

This is one of the commercial packages that you can buy from the HQ. At the time of writing it costs 99 Euros plus VAT, which is a bargain in my opinion. This awesome package allows you to quickly and easily build forms in your browser. You can also assign simple workflow items, like sending confirmation emails and submitting records to web services (such as a CRM for example). If you are using newer versions of Umbraco with Razor, you also get the ability to fully control the markup for the forms. There's also a decent API, so you can create your own custom form field types and worflows. Contour is such a powerful little tool that I just cost it into all my Umbraco projects these days! You can find out more about Contour here.

DocType Mixins

This is another really useful little gem. Out of the box with Umbraco, you can create DocTypes that inherit from a "parent" DocType. The Mixins package allows you to create special "Mixin" DocTypes that can be assigned to multiple DocTypes. If you've ever working with Rails, you'll be familiar with the concept. I find it much less restrictive than the inherited model, as you cn easily tweak the Mixin properties in individual DocTypes without affecting the others that use the same Mixin. One thing I use this for a lot is for things like SEO and Social meta data tabs that I need to include on the majority of DocTypes. It's also handy for things like sidebar tabs. You can find out more about DocType Mixins here. If you're more of a code first kind of guy or gal, you can also check out uSiteBuilder, which lets you do the same thing, but using classes in your Visual Studio project.

Config Tree

This is a handy package that allows you to edit all of the Umbraco config files from within the developers section of the back office (including the web.config file). This is very handy if you need to make quick changes. If you have everything under source control, you probably won't use it, but for any other situation, it's very handy to be able to edit the files without having to use FTP or remote desktop. You can download Config Tree here.

Robots.txt Editor

If you do a lot of SEO work, you may need to edit the robots.txt file occasionally. This handy packaage allows you to do that right in thedevelopers section of the back office, without resorting to FTP/remore desktop. You won't use it loads, but when you do, it's very handy indeed. Grab it here.

FamFamFam Icons

The default content tree icons are OK, but lets face it, they're a bit dull aren't they? Also, it's kind of hard to distinguish different page types by looking at them. So what can you do? You can download some extra icons and use those instead of the default ones. When you install this package, it adds a TON of icons for you to use. Got a news section? Why not use a newspaper icon for it, so that it's super obvious? Got a contact form? Use an envelope! You get the idea. You can download the icon package here. If the FamFamFam icons don't float your boat, you can also try the Fugue icons set too.

That's it for today, stay tuned for part 2 in the not too distant future!