Miriam Tocino

I can take it all the way back to when I was little because I wasn’t always this passionate about technology. Growing up, my dad always wanted me to go into computer science.

He liked to say, “Miriam, it’s the future!”. But I thought that computers were gray and boring. So instead, I went to college and studied architecture.

It wasn’t until I was 30 when I started seeing how exciting the world of technology could be. I finally quit my job as an architect and stayed home for six months, teaching myself how to code through online courses. I then became a software developer before going on to become a coding teacher.

Three years ago, when I had my son, I started thinking about how I’d like to introduce him to the world of computers.

During a discussion with my husband, who is a game programmer, we started saying, “What if we read him stories that take place inside a computer? About how computers do maths or graphics, and how the internet works? And what if they were told by a zero and a one? They could live in the Binary World!”

That’s how Zerus & Ona were born. They are the two main characters of a picture book series about computer-related topics to encourage young kids to become curious about what technology is and how it works.

Storytelling opens up their minds and lays a great conceptual foundation for introducing activities such as robotics, coding, and digital fabrication.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not at all. For a long time, I saw myself as an architect, having my own office and building projects.

My transition into tech happened very fast and without much planning. Soon after learning how to code, I got my first job at a digital agency. It was a great experience to start, and I learned a lot from working on many different projects.

After some months, it was time for a new job, and here’s the one thing I planned. I asked myself which field, in particular, I wanted to go in. And that’s what I like the most about working in tech — you get to choose your industry because there are jobs for us everywhere!

In my case, that industry was education, and I started looking for jobs only in that sector.

I ended up working at an online education platform in Amsterdam, where they defined themselves as the Amazon of learning. It was a wonderful experience, the team was very young, fresh, and we had a great time building things together.

It took me 30 years to find the creative and human side of technology, and I don’t want the same thing to happen to our children. That’s the ‘secret’ driving force behind Zerus & Ona.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

The biggest challenge for me came three years ago when I had my son. By that time, I worked as a programming teacher, and I’d planned 3-month maternity leave. But, when I returned to work, I couldn’t do it.

Having a baby turned out to be a challenge for us. On the one hand, we were always sleep-deprived because our baby didn’t sleep. And on the other, we were ex-pats living in Amsterdam, with no family and few friends around to lend us a hand.

It was challenging to go back to my teaching, which involved daily 8-hour programming lessons, with 25 students going through a career change. Let alone how to combine that with a breastfeeding schedule.

So, I quit my job, and I stayed home, taking care of my baby. It was a challenge to have that much time to be alone with my thoughts. But after a while, I started seeing the bright side of things.

Motherhood allowed me to pause and reflect on what I had been doing in my career and what I wanted to spend my time moving forward. Sometimes we need to slow down to speed up again, as hard as that can be, but that’s what helped me overcome it.

Soon after that, I started working on Zerus & Ona while my baby was sleeping. And they became my way to channel my emotions during that time.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

The challenge I described became my most significant career achievement. 
I decided to take my son’s early years, not only to be a mom and be there for him but also to build a career that makes a greater impact.

With Zerus & Ona, I especially want to reach other women and moms. Because we become role models for our children, and it’s crucial to look tech-savvy if we’re going to inspire them too.

Coming up with fresh, exciting, innovative ways to help them introduce the world of computers at home will eventually engage a broader range of children.

If we get this right, we’ll spark their curiosity for what technology is and how it works. Children will start dreaming and seeing themselves as creators of technology. And some of them will end up building our digital future.

Zerus & Ona has already reached 15 countries worldwide, and educators are starting to use it to inspire their students.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

You could say that Zerus & Ona brings together what I’ve been learning about during the last 20 years of my life — architecture, programming, and teaching.

But here’s the thing.

One of them gave me the most confidence to move forward with it. And that was my ability to code. Being tech-savvy allowed me to build my website, set up the shop, and domain hosting. I also knew how to customize liquid templates to gather specific data from products and make everything look the way I wanted.

Knowing that you can take care of all that by yourself, it gives you a big boost! And for me, it gave me the mental space that I needed to focus on the drawing, the colors, and the stories.

Children need to know that understanding computers is a SUPERPOWER. Learning about them and how they work will help them create their own world, in whatever way they choose. And it’s our responsibility to communicate that to them.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

First, get out there and look for role models. They’ll help you feel inspired to build the momentum you need to keep going and do the work you want to do in this world.

Simultaneously, you also need to turn inward and build a relationship with your inner mentor. I believe we all know what’s best for us from an intuition level, and the answers are inside. Journaling helps me with that. I journal daily.

What advice would you give to parents and educators looking to get their children thinking about what technology is and how it works? How can they engage them early?

I have a passion for finding unexpected and surprising connections between technology and the world around us. Technology is everywhere, in every industry, and it’s becoming easier every day to find examples that connect with your child’s interests. Let it be fashion, arts, or animals.

You could start looking at the things that your child already loves. Then, do some research online, ask your network and find someone working in that field. How do they use technology in their work? Organize a meeting with them and expose your children to that.

These are the type of conversations that I wish to see happening more and more between parents, teachers, and their children. That’s a beautiful place to start.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

First, accept that there’s a problem happening. And second, companies could start designing a plan for women who want to be moms. A 3-month maternity leave, as it’s in the Netherlands, it’s just not enough for many of us. Have a plan in place when it’s time for them to come back, make them feel supported and understood.

Having a mom in your team is one of the best assets you could ever imagine. We create magic from nothing and get things done like no one else. But to excel in that, we need to be happy and feel that we’re making a difference.

There is currently only 17% of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

I’d start with 4-year old girls. These girls are our allies.

They still don’t know that they’re not supposed to like computers. If we’re able to engage them with technology and see it as their future, if we guide them along the way and give them the tools, it’s only 20 years until we’d increased that number!

Not all of these girls need to become a programmer. Still, we’ll already be making an impact if we get them to look at technology as a tool, and they start using it to express themselves since they’re little.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

First, Caterina Fake runs a great podcast called “Should this exist?“, where she discusses how tech is impacting our humanity together with other people in the industry.

Then there’s the Cajigo App. It’s a mobile learning platform where women can chat and connect. They can learn from those who have been there before them, be inspired by industry role models, and receive mentoring from senior executives.

Last, I’d like to mention the WeAreTechWomen Conference that you organize. This year was my first time attending, and it was mind-blowing! After the event, I connected with amazing women, like Rav Bumbra and Suw Charman-Anderson, and I’m now collaborating on different projects with both of them.

WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Professor Sue Black OBE, Debbie Forster MBE, Jacqueline de Rojas CBE, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here