Mike MJ Harris

Working at Wonderbly


After two glorious years at the Royal Academy of Arts I changed jobs to work for Wonderbly. Writing about career change is both a nice memento of my thoughts at the time, why I wanted to move and helps me process thoughts and feeling about what is often a significant life event. Previous posts detailed changes including from from Mammal to MOO, internally at MOO and finally from MOO to the RA. My Wonderbly life stared in February 2020 - I would of written earlier but life and a pandemic kept me busy.

Two years at the RA

Looking back at the reasons for moving to the RA I got everything I wanted out of the job and so much more. Professionally I progressed: my coding and understanding of technical architecture improved. Being a manager in charge of a small team was also a huge learning curve. Personally I grew: being part of the RA and the museum world was wonderful - there were so many interesting people to meet and fantastic shows to see. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and I learnt a huge amount art and the museum sector.

The main project I was involved in while at the RA was the introduction of a new ticketing, membership and CRM system. We kicked off procurement in my first week there and spent the next two years working with teams across the whole of the organisation to update both the technology and the day to day processes. There was huge support for the project and I was incredibly lucky to work with a brilliant set of people. Plenty of challenges along the way but we had good fun and were really happy to help deliver such a major change to how the RA is setup.

There were many other projects including improving the Summer Exhibition explorer (where we roughly doubled online sales each year), partnering with Substrakt on the Young Artists Summer Exhibition, launching an internal tool to manage artworks lent to us as well as upkeep and maintenance of our main website and blog.

More than just a job

Working at the RA was so much more than delivering on all the team's projects. Obviously they were the priority but in the two years I also got to embrace the art world - something that I never thought I'd get paid to do. Getting to mix and work with all the teams and people at the RA was a unique experience - from the front of house staff, through to marketing, the exhibitions team, the RA schools, archive, the library and the executive team. Such an amazing set of people who were all very generous with their time and knowledge.

Some of the highlights away from the work include moving into refurbished building with new gallery spaces and areas, celebrating the RA's 250th anniversary, visiting all the exhibitions, wandering round deserted galleries prior to starting work for the day, amazing Christmas parties, celeb spotting at the Summer Exhibition preview parties and two amazing trips to the yearly Tessitura conference in the US where I got to mix with people from arts organisations from across the world.

Why Move?

That all sounds wonderful so why move? In my mind the role was always for a couple of years and I was always clear to my boss about this. I wanted to deliver the key project, make the most of all the opportunities on offer and then move on. I learnt a huge amount being in charge of the tech team at the RA but wanted to be in a bigger team with more senior people around to help me progress. Other factors also came into play - from being able to earn more money outside the arts, finding an office closer to my east London home and also a new challenge. The arts world is magical especially when you are new to it - leaving after two years kept it that way.

New Job

As we finished the major project at the RA I was approached by a recruiter on LinkedIn about a role at Wonderbly. I knew quite a bit about them having gone to a talk from Asi the founder back in 2013 as well as knowing a few of the people who worked there through other tech events around the same time. Everything slotted into place - a couple of interviews, an offer and I had a job closer to home, more money and also a product I cared about. Wonderbly make beautiful personalised books - I love books, love the products the company makes and helping children fall in love with reading is a great reason to get up and go to work each day. There was a fun, caring feel about the company and which felt similar to the atmosphere at MOO - a place I really enjoyed working at.

All that was left was to say good bye to the RA - enjoying celebratory drinks, some lovely leaving messages and one final glorious RA Christmas party. I'd negotiated a month off (thank you Wonderbly!) so was off to Bali to complete my yoga teacher training.

Starting a new job in 2020

Display of some of our books on display at the office.

There was a great welcome from the team when I joined - all the simple but essential things that you need on day one - computer ready to go, welcome pack explaining how life at Wonderbly works, where toilets are, where the meeting rooms are, what to expect during a week. Plus the team cooked a welcome breakfast for me. Everyone was incredibly helpful, friendly and supportive. One of the attractions of working at a place like Wonderbly is that it's not just tech people - there's the artists, storytellers, product team both physical and digital and many more. Another bonus is being able to show the books to your parents so they can have a rough idea of what you actually do.

Changing job is a huge upheaval and every time I've done it there's a few panicky moments in the first few weeks/months as you learn how a new company works, get to grips with the system and also try and set your own processes and ways of doing things. The warm welcome and great on boarding helped with this upheaval - there's always a few moments where you miss the routine and people from somewhere you've worked a while - but time and effort and you can build up new relationships and habits.

Starter kit and me in a spaceship

The tech team at Wonderbly is split into two teams - those who look after the development of the books and my team who deal with the e-commerce website and fulfillment. The RA website generated roughly the same revenue as the Wonderbly website but at Wonderbly this is pretty much the only source of revenue so there is a lot of pressure to make sure everything is working! Our team looks after the user facing website (built with Node and React) and our backend e-commerce system (Ruby on Rails) and we help out with a number of systems including how books are sent to and fulfilled by the printers.

My time is split between managing the two developers and one QA on my team (all of whom mainly focus on the website codebase) and being the main developer on the backend systems (with help from the VP of engineering and CTO). I enjoy the split between hands on coding and managing - my priority is always to make sure the team is supported and 1-1s are the most important part of the week. Being the main engineer on the backend system is quite daunting - at MOO there were multiple teams to manage what our small set of developers do. All of this is a big responsibility but just the sort of challenge I was looking for.


Obviously 2020 isn't a normal year. Covid news was beginning to seep into the UK conciousness as I started the role. I was fortunate to build up some relationships face to face in February and then lockdown. This was still in my probation period so was a little nervous but I was given lots of reassurances that my job was OK. After a few weeks it looked like as an online company our sales figures wouldn't be too disrupted and we could get on with making remote work happen as well as possible

As with any new process time and effort has to go into making remote work go smoothly - as a team and a company there was lots of shared ideas and thoughts and we set some expectations on what would work best for everyone. We wanted to make the most of the new flexibility so encouraged everyone to work how they wanted outside of the usual weekly structure of meetings. There was also the recognition that this was no normal remote work - it was a pandemic and unplanned and there were extra stresses on everyone - from child care, lack of home working setup through to stresses about the world.

Overall it's gone well - with the team we reworked expectations (dealing with the pandemic the priority) shared how how we were taking breaks whether for daily walks of shopping trips. Feedback has been good and despite the stresses of the year we've still been able to deliver large chunks of what we had planned. While in a pandemic (and often at other times in life!) work can seem trivial it is a key part of people's stability and mental health - not only providing a pay check but a sense of purpose. There's a great buzz when things click and you are part of a team who who aren't too stressed, have fun yet still get that sense of achievement of working together on a task.

Layout of the office

As lockdowns have eased went for 1-1s in the park with the team and then had odd days in the office. Remote has worked well but most fully remote companies still stress the importance of some face to face time at some point. It hasn't been all smooth sailing - we had a crunch in August. We'd been overoptimistic in the number of books with new features we were trying to deliver as well as taking on some chunky technical refactoring. We think being in the office the crunch would of been more obvious - it highlighted that we needed to be clearer and more direct with remote messaging especially when things aren't working as we don't have the in person physical cues. Fortunately that was the only big issue in the year and we have learnt from it and improved.


Have really enjoyed Wonderbly so far - the usual bumps and uncertainties that you get with any new job and Covid has certainly had a big impact but I enjoy the people I work with and the broader Wonderbly team. My tech skills are improving and I've learnt a lot about how a children's book gets created. There's been good feedback in terms of how the team is working, the projects we've delivered and I was very proud to win a 'kind' award that gets voted for by the whole company. Wonderbly is full of ideas - sometimes too many and I have had to learn to say no more. The company has adapted to Covid and the stresses of lockdown while at the same time finding time to discuss and share thoughts on others key topics such as BLM and politics across the world.

All good so far and excited to see how both myself and the company grow next year. Lots of opportunities, exciting project and some great people to work with.