A detour into the world of software development

By Ian Gregory on May 21st

It's May, and we've just passed the Fringe programme deadline, the date by which shows have to be registered and details finalised to make it into the paper Fringe programme. This date typically marks the end of a frantic period for our bookings team, as they juggle last minute changes and tweaks and proof read each of over 440 show listings.

Our companies first register with the Fringe, we then proof the details, and once signed off we import the show and performance information from the Fringe into our central database. The closure of the registrations therefore marks a busy period for us in the Production Team as we start this import process - invariably the process surfaces some errors or inconsistencies which need to be worked through - but before long we have everything in order.

Nowadays we're massively reliant on accurate and up to date show and performance information, so effort put in at this point pays dividends in the long term. We store this information in several software systems that support different aspects of our operation.

It wasn't always this way. Cast your mind back to the Edinburgh Fringe 2008. Katy Perry's 'I Kissed A Girl' was Number One in the UK singles chart (and no doubt was getting blasted out of a boom box at the V45 parties), and, closer to home, 'Crocosmia' by Little Bulb Theatre had won a Fringe First at theSpace On The Mile, in the first year that we'd operated the venue.

Tickets for that show, along with all of the others in that venue, had been sold from our box office using a paper based daybook - essentially a grid for each performance with an entry added by hand for each ticket sale. Each row would have a cumulative total showing how many tickets were left, enabling us to know when we'd sold out. Books of tickets were pre printed with the show name, and we'd stamp on the date and write on the type (Full/Concession etc) before issuing the ticket to the customer.

Over in Venue 45, we were a bit more up to date. Over the preceding few years, one of the team had developed a Microsoft Access application which took on the role of the daybook. Named AutoBox, it handled the tracking of sales and paying out takings to the performing companies, while the actual tickets themselves continued to be manually stamped. It even automatically imported details of any sales from the Fringe box office (via some hideous VBscript which scraped a PDF manually downloaded from the Fringe website over a dial-up modem!)

We knew back then that 2009 would bring at least one new space - Theatre 2 at theSpace on the Mile (we didn't yet know that we'd add four theatres at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall too!) so we had started to consider how we could scale up our box office operation to handle this growth.

We could have worked with the Fringe to implement their box office system. However, the Fringe box office operation had just suffered a pretty disastrous year, and jumping on board didn’t seen the greatest plan at the time. We could have moved to a commercial or open source product; but we’d have had to change the way we worked to fit in with someone else’s system. That would have meant dropping some of the things which made us unique and which we really valued as part of our ethos (e.g. paying companies their cash takings straight after their performance) - which we concluded was not acceptable. AutoBox, while ideal for a single-venue operation, was built on top of technology that wouldn’t scale to a multi-site approach.

That pretty much left one option - build something new. We’ve mentioned how we’re a bunch of geeks at heart - so it might not surprise you to know we’re also quite adept at software development.

And so that’s what we did. Over the course of a year we specified and wrote our own box office software, researched and bought ticket printers and that’s also why, when we fast forward to the morning of Friday 31st July 2009, we were sitting with laptops perched on knees just behind the box office desk at theSpace on the Mile, fingers and toes crossed, log files open, nervously awaiting our first customer of Fringe 2009. That morning was to become what can (in hindsight!) only be described as a baptism of fire, but we survived and nearly ten years later are running nearly our whole operation on software which has been built in-house.

In a future blog post we’ll talk further about what our systems do and how they helped us scale up to having the biggest programme on the Fringe whilst still maintaining our ‘special sauce’ that makes us stand out from some of the other operators at the modern Fringe.