In Meet Our Expert you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In this interview, Maaike opens up about her upbringing, reflects back on her professional career and provides great insights into the motivation and commitment of Cergentis' team, which led to great improvements in Quality as well as securing the ISO 17025 certification!
Where did you grow up and how were you as a kid?
This might surprise you, but I was extremely shy! [laughs]. I come from a very small village in Friesland, in the North of the Netherlands. There, I lived with my parents, brother and sister until I was 8. We later moved to Waddinxveen in South Holland. I ended up losing the Frisian accent quite fast! I had a really nice time growing up there. After secondary school, I went to Utrecht to do my bachelor’s in biology and my master’s in biomolecular sciences. Again, I had a great time! I love Utrecht, it’s like a huge village with nice people and the environment is amazing! I’ve been living here for over 20 years now and bought a house with my partner, Maarten. We also have 3 cats and a boat!
How did your interest in Quality Assurance (QA) come about?
It was actually a coincidence. I wouldn’t say I’m the most typical QA person but I like to create structure from chaos. So, this is the place to be! [laughs] I like to build and optimize stuff. I don’t like waste and inefficiency. That is what I know now, but not when I was 18. After graduation, there was a financial crisis, so getting a job was difficult. Eventually, I found a job through an employment agency.
It was only temporary, but it was a nice job! It was for a quality control (QC) lab responsible for the coordination of batch releases within RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment). They did QC on all vaccine and blood-derived medicines/products batches for the Dutch market. Their QC consisted of assays done in the lab as well as of batch review. I was involved in the latter and was responsible for the coordination of the lab experiments. I would combine the information and make a release certificate. After which, I would then release a batch. As part of that work, I also set up the finance administration. I really loved that job because it was like having my own office. [As the Dutch say,] I was like a “spin in het web” (translated: a spider in the web). Meaning that I was in contact with everyone. I also really liked the deadlines. When customers produce a batch, they obviously want to have it released the same day or the “day before”. So, I needed to make sure that they received their certificate in time to sell their product.
You have a great mix of work experience at government-related agencies and commercial parties. How does the role of QA differ between them and what were some of your (previous) career highlights?
The way I went about my career is typical of my personality. I never had a “pre-defined” path that I wanted or needed to follow. My path kind of created on its own and brought me to where I am today. Which is exactly where I want to be. My governmental experience kind of just happened. The opportunity came and I took it. I ended up loving it. But I also had jobs that I didn’t like as much. Though, thanks to them, I also learned about myself.
Thanks to this first job, I ended up having connections with some people at Sanquin – a blood-derived medicine producer. This got me the position of Quality Engineer in the Trending In Process Controls group. I also liked that job because it was a new department within the company. And this gave room for creativity and improvement. I was part of the production department, but it meant a lot of interdisciplinary troubleshooting as well as root-cause investigations. After 5 great years, I wanted to do something else. So, I started looking for opportunities within the company. Places where Sanquin could benefit the most from me. Where room for improvement was the biggest. That turned out to be the QA department.
After Sanquin, I went to Friesland Campina - a multinational company. There, I worked on one sub-topic of quality: Supplier Qualification Management. During that time, I learned that I prefer having a broad variety of responsibilities.
Because I had such a brilliant time at RIVM, I went back there! What I also found out about myself, is that I really like to develop things. For example, a quality management system (QMS). I like the “spider in the web function”. This time, I was in the quality department and there was this project of upgrading the QMS. Those are the kind of challenges that I like to tackle! And although the need to change was there, the willingness to improve and change was less.
I then went to Gebana afterwards and absolutely loved it! It was a small fair-trade company, with young and very passionate people. Gebana puts all kinds of fruits and nuts on the European market. There was a good vibe over there! I liked the supplier-development aspect of the job because quality is very important here. Obviously, a certain quality standard needs to be met to produce for the European market. I was hired to manage the project called: BRC certification. BRC is the Quality Standard for food. At the time, Gebana had a very minimalistic QMS, which I then had to create from scratch. I did that together with the team and the Quality Director in Zurich.
What I think I do best is not to change the working processes a lot. Instead, I like to incorporate the requirements into the already existing workflows with small adjustments. It’s more of a bottom-up than top-down approach. This way, I think, creates the most success and the most willingness in people [within a company] to adapt quality. If quality works for them, they work for quality too.
In the end, the BRC certifying was successful and granted an A. Which is the highest score you can get, so I was very proud of that! Although they had asked me to stay, I felt my job was done and wanted a new challenge.
That’s when I came across Cergentis’ vacancy and I was like “oh my god, I want this job!” For the first time, I really thought about how my ideal job would look like and what would make me most happy. Including the type of work environment, the size of the company, etc. I really wanted to go to a smaller company because you can work on a broad variety of activities there and quality systems are usually not developed yet. I then ended up having what I think is the nicest job, where people can benefit the most from me. Unlike in a company where everything is set in stone. Cergentis ticked all my boxes. It’s full of enthusiastic, intelligent people and the company is in the growth phase, which means that I can continue developing with it.
The significant quality changes you helped implement last year at Cergentis, earned you a very well-deserved promotion! Looking back, what are some of your proudest accomplishments?
Let me start by saying that this is not my achievement. This is absolutely our achievement. I could not have done this without the people really doing their job.
With the aim of getting ISO 17025 last year, we needed to adjust things in the way we work. It’s always easier to put it in writing but to actually have it implemented, that’s a different ball game. It relies on the Service, R&D, Bioinformatics & Software Development and Sales teams doing their work. I am here to help them understand the requirements, to help them set new working processes, but they are the ones who need to do the job. Therefore, I think the entire Cergentis team achieved a lot in such a short time and I’m very proud of that. We got very much professional, and I have to say that people [here] really learn fast! They are willing to adapt and embrace the quality system, because they know it’s for the best of the company. And that’s awesome to see.
You mentioned that team effort, willingness to learn and commitment were the fruits of Cergentis’ (quality) achievements. Prior to joining us, how did you manage to get a sense of the team’s dynamic and motivation? What helped make you confident that you would be able to carry this project to fruition?
For me there were 2 important things to find out [during the interview stage]: (1) the culture. That is, if the team’s vibe is positive and whether Cergentis’ employees are willing to learn. (2) That I would have full backing and commitment from the management team (MT), to be able to do whatever I believe would be best/necessary to accomplish our ambitious quality goals in 2021. Indeed, if you want to have good business with key players in the world, you need to have the quality system and the certifications. And that’s just the first step. After talking to the MT, they convinced me and told me: “Yes. We want this. We need this. And we need you to do this”.
Can you describe our culture and work environment?
People at Cergentis are open. They are very approachable! Everyone is always willing to help. They are also enthusiastic, and they want to learn. They love their jobs and are here to make Cergentis successful.
Also, being able to interact with my colleagues during for example coffee breaks is not only great relationship-wise, but also helpful as part of my day-to-day job. Very often, I learn something insightful about how things are going. Indeed, the informal communication is also part and relevant for my job. To understand and get a “feel” on how things are going.
You joined us at a very exciting time when our company size essentially doubled. Did that give you renewed energy and excitement?
Yes, I was really excited about it and so was everybody else! I feel the buzz! People are all excited to grow [with the company] and help make that step of becoming even more professional.
It’s also an exciting time to be at Cergentis, in terms of helping fill the current genetic QC gaps in the market. I mean, the FDA is requesting for a level of QC like we provide. So, this is an amazing time to start at Cergentis! Though I’m personally very happy that I have already started last year. Because I now know the company better, I know the people, and I know where there is still room for improvement. I’m very confident about Cergentis’ future!
Can you give our readers a glimpse of some exciting new quality projects that they can expect to see from Cergentis soon?
Actually, I just made a plan for our quality goals 2022! Last year, we focused on building our quality systems around Operations, our primary process. Huge steps have been made within the Service team as well as R&D [Change Management and Validation]. This resulted in obtaining ISO17025 accreditation, a huge milestone for Cergentis!
This year, our aim is to further improve the Bioinformatics/Software Development team including data security, which is very important for our customers. As we serve more and more customers, including those who need our services for their regulatory filings, this will be extremely important due to the high confidentiality nature of their work. So, this is what we are aiming for in 2022.
We now also have this QMS up and running, but I’d like to have an electronic QMS soon. So, I’m working on that project. Not only will it help me [laughs] but also to reduce the risk for mistakes. There are so many things exciting projects coming up!
Outside working hours, what some of your favorite hobbies?
It is sports. Lots of sports! Especially badminton. I also like to cycle, hike and I love to go on holidays [laughs]. Hiking and cycling activities are also part of my holidays. Camping as well! In fact, Maarten and I are going to Yellowstone in the spring. I am looking for camp sites and already found some with no running water [laughs]. Other than that, I like to socialize and to cook. I like to cook for my friends, eat with my friends, things like that.