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Highlights from the 2019 Craft CMS Developer Conference Dot All

Last week I hopped across the pond to Montréal, Canada for the Dot All Conference, the annual developer event for Craft CMS which is the content management system (CMS) we use at A Digital. However, not content with just attending, this year I was taking to the stage to give a talk entitled, The Great Beyond: Considerations for Migrating your website to Craft CMS, among a line-up of stellar speakers from around the world.

Having sponsored Dot All for the last 2 years, we were delighted to be a Bronze sponsor for the third year running. Get-togethers like this are incredibly important for the community to learn from each other, and despite working in a hyper-connected world, there’s nothing like a face-to-face meet up to share best practice and build on collective experience gained from using the platform.

Are we losing our heads?

This years conference followed hot on the heels of the most recent Craft release (version 3.3) which included new features enabling Craft to be used in a scenario known as a ‘decoupled’, or ‘headless’ CMS. A headless CMS basically allows the CMS to be used to manage the content, but how and where that content is actually displayed or used, needn’t be restricted to pages and templates generated by the CMS at all. So this could feed content and data into mobile apps, or even Internet of Things (IoT) devices while continuing to provide all the benefits of custom content structures and an intuitive author experience (AX).

Andrew Welch presenting at Dot All 2019

Andrew Welch talking about the JAMstack and how it differs to the more traditional LAMPstack.

Needless to say then, there was plenty of talk about headless CMS and the components needed to build one. The first announcement from the Craft team was that Craft will soon be available as a stripped down version known as Craft Cloud. In other words, you’ll be able to just set up a Craft instance on a subscription basis without having to think about server setup or advanced configurations, leaving you free to build the content structure and tailor the author experience so you can output content to whatever channel you need.

Having stepped away from writing code on a day-to-day basis myself, the headless thing was of interest and there’s no doubt that thanks to Andrew Welch talking about the LAMPstack vs. the JAMstack, I’m a lot clearer about what it is. However, although I’ve come away convinced that headless development going to be a more popular choice in the future, I’m still not sure I understand why it might be the right choice. For me this seemed to be an oversight as it increasingly felt we were getting carried away with the hype of the new shiny play thing.

All this new stuff points to an even greater proliferation of the role of the front-end developer which Chris Coyier spoke about on the opening day. He argued that with Javascript being the only language that can run on both the client and server side, it has introduced new roles for front end coders that now include ‘back-front-end’ and ‘front-front-end’. People working in this space now need to know more about the full-tech stack and how each element interacts with another; something that hasn't really been the case in the past. Front-end devs might ordinarily hand over to back-end devs for anything that needed to happen server-side, but this is less likely to be the case when building a headless site.

Chris Coyier talking about the role of Front End Developers at Dot All 2019

CSS Tricks and CodePen founder Chris Coyier talking about the role of Front-End Devs.

This added breadth to the front-end developer role also carries the risk of more people in our industry feeling outfaced by the pace of change and relentless need to keep up. Jay Collet spoke about this candidly in his talk about Imposter Syndrome and it was somewhat reassuring to hear president of Happy Cog Matt Weinberg point out that their headless projects are still very much in the minority, and the traditional CMS build approach is still absolutely relevant.

New features announced

Craft CMS CEO Brandon Kelly announced some of the new features that will be found in Craft 4, expected to be released during 2020. While no commitment on a release date was offered, my own view on this would see Craft 4 on general release some time between May and September next year. Craft 4 will build on the successes of Craft 3 with more enhancements on the author experience, but clients will be relieved to hear this will be a forward compatible update with none of the major changes to the underlying codebase that was seen when upgrading from Craft 2 to Craft 3.

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Brandon Kelly talking about future plans for Craft CMS.

While some of these benefits may not be immediately obvious for many end users, Craft 4 will introduce the following features for clients and content authors:

  • High contrast mode and dark mode, along with full keyboard control for improved accessibility and ease of use (I 💙keyboard shortcuts!)
  • Better mobile support for touch drag and drop;
  • Multi-author editing to lock entries that might already be in mid-edit by someone else;
  • New content modelling including conditional fields (yeaah! 🥳) that allow certain fields to appear depending on the content of others, and new nestable matrix fields for granular control over content presentation.
  • Custom element index views allowing users to see more of what they need to see at a glance.

In short, these will enhance the content management experience by opening up more options for structuring content and making it easier and more intuitive for users to create and publish their stories.

New features were also announced for Craft Commerce with admin order creation and order editing being top of the list which will both be well received.

Non technical talks

As most of the talks I attended were of the non-technical flavour, I particularly enjoyed the presentation by Kyle Cotter from Happy Cog on author experience. From my point of view, this is so critical to get right so clients feel their site is a joy to use. Technology is supposed to be an enabler, and there are so many platforms that make heavy weather of this, yet Craft gives plenty of options to enhance the author experience so that nothing should become a chore when it comes to managing your website. Reassuringly for me, the process followed by Happy Cog wasn’t hugely dissimilar to our own, but it’s great to see how others manage this aspect of their projects as there are so many different routes that can be taken here.

Kyle Cotter speaking at Dot All Montreal 2019

Happy Cog's Kyle Cotter speaking about his 7 Principles of Author Experience.

I also found myself surprisingly fixated in Sam Hernandez’s talk on being a Stoic Developer. I knew little about Stoicism, but he gave a very personal account of his journey and how he found strength in its philosophy. He provided quotes from well-known figures from throughout history, making the point that stoics don’t fear control or rely on external events, but have the power within themselves to control their judgement of something that might be causing them pain or anxiety. It was also a reminder to seize the moment, because if something can happen next week, it could happen at anytime, as he quoted Gretchen Rubin who said:

The days are long, but the years are short.

Gretchen Rubin

Closing out the conference Henri Helvetica gave a thought-provoking talk about joining the dots that ultimately build the digital experience that people have come to expect, but perhaps more importantly are entitled to. The web has matured but there are still plenty of opportunities to improve what it delivers to humanity and ensure inclusivity and accessibility with high performance.

Summing Up

Dot All has once again been a fantastic event. It’s a well organised conference with an inclusive and supportive feel, and of course a great opportunity to meet other people face to face and build friendships and partnerships that can flourish well after the conference has ended. The developer community is supportive and open, and not only the reason why we attend these events, but by sponsoring them as well we can play a small part in ensuring they take place at all.

There were of course other speakers and presentations I've not mentioned here so forgive me if you've not seen your name here. This is purely because the conference split into 2 tracks, so do check out the videos of all this years presentations which will available in the next couple of weeks on the conference website at https://dotall.com/2019.

Next year’s conference takes place in Amsterdam with dates to be announced, and will no doubt be made up of a well curated line up of speakers from across the industry covering a wide variety of topics.

What about your own talk?

Well, I'm so glad you asked! If you're wanting to learn more about what you need to factor in to a migration project to Craft CMS, then we'll add a separate post to our website shortly.