For most people, Ticketmaster is just the gateway to gig tickets. In fact, it's the site they love to hate, as they mash that refresh button until that split-second when those golden, elusive tickets become available, before being snatched up by thousands in the time it takes to make a coffee. For Connon MacRae, however, it's been the journey of a lifetime, from humble call-centre worker to a global director of one of the most complex online systems in the world.
When you look at Ticketmaster from the outside, it's quite difficult to appreciate just how big a task keeping the world's largest ticket seller online really is. We're accustomed to systems with massive horizontal scaling -- that's what the cloud is all about -- and it works fantastically well for content delivery, because you can cache almost anything. But when you're trying to do something dynamic, like actually selling people tickets in their droves, things are very different.
"We already have large scale so we get frustrated when people suggest 'use the cloud' — it's not so simple with transactions, and certainly not when you deal with something atomic like a ticket. It always seems simple on the outside, people don't have enough appreciation for how unique selling tickets is or how much scale we already have; what we do is highly complex."
But how did MacRae get to the enviable position of commanding a global team; supporting thousands of servers in multiple locations across the world; fighting off organised, relentless ticket touts, and furnishing music-lovers with their chance to get up close and personal with the artists they love? It all started in a call centre, selling tickets to people over the phone.
"Whilst in the Call Centre I started to find the work of our technical team really interesting; I began asking a lot of questions and I was lucky enough that they shared what they knew," he told us.
It was that innate curiosity that led to a progressive career climbing steadily up the ranks, taking MacRae, admittedly, far past his own ambitions, staying with Ticketmaster for what's now been 16 years. In that time the company has evolved from being primarily an over-the-phone-based seller; through the confines of the internet, and onto the brave new world of mobile.
The thing that differentiates Ticketmaster from other online retailers, like Amazon, is the commodity at its heart -- the ticket -- which drives very different traffic patterns to most other sites, as people flood to snap up the latest stubs. In effect, Ticketmaster sees what looks like DDoS attempts by the very people it's trying to sell to.
"Our business is the most complex ecommerce environment on the planet. What we sell is limited in supply; isn’t fungible, and we constantly battle touts who use automatic computer programs to grab tickets before real fans have a chance to buy them."
MacRae added: "We have extraordinary traffic spikes. Take Robbie Williams or Beyonce for example -- we had hundreds of thousands of customers hitting our site in one go. This kind of demand requires massive investment in our infrastructure."
Managing those complex systems; battling ticket touts, and pioneering new technology is what keeps the teams behind Ticketmaster buzzing: "being able to work on cool things and dealing with the really weird traffic patterns we see is pretty exciting. That buzz is really hard to get anywhere else. Ask anyone that has left. They all miss it."
According to MacRae though, Ticketmaster is currently going through a resurgence of tech right now, going back to its roots as an innovator in the field. Mobile is the key area for development at the moment, as people, armed with their myriad of smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets, don't really need that paper ticket anymore.
"Mobile will take over without a doubt. Not only for purchasing tickets but how you get into a venue. It has been a difficult transition over the last five years in particular, [but] there are some brave decisions being made that will ensure we're primed for the future," he promised to us.
"Ticketmaster is regaining its tech reputation -- we used to build the hardware; the OS, and code that ran on top! We're re-establishing ourselves technically and we will continue to draw on talent wherever it is and wherever we have an office."
Words to heed the next time you're hammering refresh on Ticketmaster, trying to snag Daft Punk tickets before the legions of other rabid fans. It's not just raw power that keeps those ticket sales ringing through; it's a whole bunch of people like MacRae.
If you're looking for a challenge in the systems space, Ticketmaster is on a massive recruitment drive at the moment to populate its technology teams. Check out its careers site if you're looking for a new job.