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ALBUQUERQUE — Joan Woodard bristled at the word “contractor.”
The 57-year-old nuclear weapons program manager is retiring in May, and she was reflecting on the changes she has seen since she first stepped through the doors at Sandia National Laboratories 36 years ago as a young solar energy researcher.
When she started at Sandia, national service was the driving motivation. In the past 15 years, a shift in the relationship between the federal government and national laboratories like Sandia has taken root, with management by profit incentive rather than rooted in national service.
In the early years of her career, that was not how it worked.
“We were never referred to as ‘contractor,’” Woodard said in a wide-ranging interview.
Woodard is homegrown Sandia talent, with a career that tracks the arc of change at Sandia since the 1970s. She came to Sandia with an undergraduate degree in math, and earned her master’s and doctorates at Stanford with Sandia’s help.
Long prominent at Sandia and in the national nuclear weapons community, she surprised many of her colleagues Feb. 10 when she announced via an e-mail to the Sandia staff that she was retiring.
She will be missed, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
“Joan Woodard has been a tremendous asset to Sandia National Laboratories. The lab is a better place because of her leadership,” Bingaman said.
In an interview, she said she decided it is time to do something different, although she is not sure yet what that will be.
Woodard has had management responsibility over nearly every major program at Sandia, from solar energy to nuclear weapons. She will finish her career as executive vice president responsible for Sandia’s National Security Technologies and Systems programs, which make up $1.35 billion of Sandia’s $2.2 billion annual budget.
Woodard recalled having to wait in line to fill her car up with gasoline as she drove cross country during the 1974 energy shortage to start her new job as a solar energy researcher at Sandia’s California lab site.
She was the first new hire there after a period of layoffs during a difficult time in Sandia’s history. “There was a sort of symbolism,” she said.
As a new hire without a security clearance, she spent her first month in a temporary office outside Sandia’s security area that workers jokingly called “the leper colony.” She vividly recalls the first time she set foot inside the security cordon, escorted in by a worker with a security clearance to hear a lecture.
“I was sort of in awe,” she said.
She spent 10 years working on solar programs, while also completing her graduate studies at Stanford, rising to supervisor of Sandia’s solar thermal programs.
In the years since, her responsibilities have ranged from management of a piece of Sandia’s “Star Wars” missile defense work to oversight of energy and environmental work. Since 2005, she has headed Sandia’s nuclear weapons and national security programs.
She spoke with pride of work her colleagues did over her years in the nuclear weapons program to improve the security and safety of U.S. nuclear weapons, to ensure that they never go off accidentally. The set of skills developed overseeing the nuclear stockpile now extends to a broad range of national security tasks, from energy to intelligence, Woodard said.
Woodard said she has not made any decisions about what she will do after leaving Sandia, beyond continuing to serve on a national intelligence science advisory panel and on the board of directors of PNM Resources, the parent company of electric utility PNM, formerly known as Public Service Company of New Mexico.
Woodard’s career spans a significant change in the way Sandia and other national laboratories are managed. When she was hired, Sandia was managed for the federal government by AT&T, which began doing the job in 1949 at the request of President Harry Truman. AT&T’s management was done on a no profit-no loss basis, essentially a service to the country.
It was a relationship that paralleled the University of California’s management of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, the nation’s two other nuclear weapons labs.
That changed beginning in the 1990s, when AT&T stepped down and the Department of Energy put the Sandia management contract out to bid, choosing defense contractor Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin, to run the lab and structuring the contract with management fees and performance incentives.
The same shift happened in 2006 at Los Alamos, when a team led by industrial giant Bechtel won the contract to manage Los Alamos.
With profits and bonuses at risk, the shift has led to a risk-averse management culture, Woodard said, with contractors motivated by profit rather than service in the national interest.
One of the key management challenges facing the national laboratories in the future, she said, is to recapture the core value of national service.
“To me,” she said, “these labs are special.”