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Pulsed power and making an impact: Pace VanDevender, looking back on three decades, finds Sandia still a great place to work but with evermore complex operational requirements

Pulsed power and making an impact: Pace VanDevender, looking back on three decades, finds Sandia still a great place to work but with evermore complex operational requirements

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In the three decades since now-retiring Chief Technology Officer and VP for Science, Technology, and Partnerships Pace VanDevender joined Sandia in 1974, he says the most important things about Sandia are unchanged, but one new thing poses challenges still unresolved.

What’s unchanged, he says, are the Sandia culture, the strong sense of identity Sandians have, and the opportunity to make an impact. What has changed are new layers of operational oversight and regulatory requirements that in effect constitute an entire second new goal for Sandia, operational excellence.

How the mix between “mission excellence” and “operational excellence” turns out is still a bit unclear, but nevertheless, he says, Sandia is still a great place to work.

“Sandia was always a place where you could go to make a difference,” says Pace, who announced in a May 3 letter to the Laboratory Leadership Team that he would leave his current position on June 2 to retire on July 14. He says he joined Sandia as a young physics PhD for two reasons. First, Sandia was where pulsed power was going to be applied to fusion, “which was my mission in life at the time.” The other, he says, was to work where people want to make a difference in the world around them.

Wanting to make a difference

“The engineering culture and mindset of Sandia directly led to everyone wanting to make a difference,” he says. “We call it these days a deliverable; we used to call it an impact.”

Pace became a division supervisor in 1978, manager of the Fusion Department in 1982, and director of Pulsed Power Sciences in 1984, a position he held into the 1990s. Between then and becoming VP in July 2003 he was director of Corporate Communications, the National Industrial Alliance, Strategic Sciences, Integrated Information Services (Chief Information Officer), and Executive Staff. When he interviewed job candidates for roles in these centers, he would ask them what they wanted out of life.

“I’d give them three options: money, freedom, and impact,” he recalls. “If they said money, I’d direct them to business. If they said freedom, I’d direct them to academia. If they said impact, I said, ‘You’re in the right place,’ and we’d continue the interview,” he says.

“That’s actually broadly practiced across Sandia,” he says. “As a result we have a cadre of wonderful people who are dedicated to exceptional service in the national interest, making a difference in the world.”

He recalls that 30 years ago things were done, at least from a pulsed-power point of view, in a much more self-contained way. “We had our tribes,” he says, and they went and did their jobs.

“Even so we still felt we were part of Sandia. This is the only place I know where we call ourselves by a special name — Sandians. You don’t say, ‘There’s a Los Alamos-ite or a Livermorean . . . person — there’s no name for it.

“We have transcended our tribes to have a corporate laboratory ethic and identity. And I’m very, very proud to be a Sandian. It means integrity. It means figuring out what’s right for the country. It means putting the nation ahead of the lab, ahead of the organization, ahead of the individual. That’s recently articulated but it has been long felt. So that’s the kind of thing that has not changed.”

A politically sensitive environment

“What has changed,” he says, “is that we are in an even more politically sensitive environment. And the struggle to find a new relationship with NNSA and DOE is still a tough challenge.

“When we still had a visible, peer-competitor adversary, the Soviet Union, then our value was immediately obvious and well-felt by everyone. Since the end of the Cold War we’ve been in a transition period and our value is not as evident to everyone as it once was.”

He says this loss of perceived value — he emphasizes that this is a misperception, not a loss of value in reality — requires educating others in Washington and elsewhere about what Sandia and the other national labs do. (He adds that competitors will come back eventually and the world is still a dangerous place, in a nuclear sense, and becoming more so.)

But there’s a related change as well.

“I think we are being asked to uphold an operational standard that we didn’t have to uphold before,” Pace says. “So operational excellence has become ‘job one’ as opposed to mission success as job one. The emphasis now is really on operations — environment, safety, health, and security — and fiduciary accountability — all the hows. That’s now job one. That is a big change, and we’ve not yet adapted.”

That may be a bit uncomfortable for Sandians, he notes, but it nevertheless must be done and done correctly — while carrying out our mission.

“It is essential that we learn to work with SSO and NNSA headquarters so we can reach a new standard of regulatory excellence and mission success. We need to pull mission success as a priority back up to be at least on par with regulatory excellence.

A sophisticated strategy required

“Today’s challenge is a far cry from what it was when I came,” Pace says. “It’s always easier to have one goal, and a motivating one. Multiple goals require a more sophisticated strategy.”

Some internal studies have been done on the various functions that take up Sandians’ time. “It’s pretty daunting how much time we spend on nontechnical things,” Pace says, “but it is not crippling.” Research environment surveys conducted in 2001 and 2003 showed increasing frustration in not having uninterrupted time to do the technical work that drives Sandians.

“Although the focus groups that I have held with department managers and senior scientists have identified this problem, this issue, they have always ended with someone admonishing me that this is still a great place to work. In fact the 2001 and 2003 surveys both affirmed that Sandia is a great place to work. And that affirmation is significantly above the norm of the other institutions surveyed. So you have to keep that in perspective. Sandia is still a great place to work.”

After former manager Paul McWhorter left Sandia for private enterprise and decided to stay with his company, Pace went and debriefed him about his decision, “to try to understand what he thought about Sandia.” Pace says Paul told him, “Tell people back at Sandia that Sandia is the last great place on earth for a technical professional to work.”

Pace repeats those words slowly for emphasis. “I think that still is something that Sandians need to keep in mind. And now the rest of Sandia has an obligation to maintain that environment.”

Pace’s highlights of working at Sandia start ultimately with the people. Says he: “Ron Detry [VP 4000] likes to say, and I’d like to quote him: ‘Sandia has only its people and its reputation — everything else is owned by the government.’ ”

E.O. Lawrence Award

A visitor suggested perhaps Pace’s receiving DOE’s E.O. Lawrence Award in 1992 was one highlight. He was only the fifth Sandian to receive the prestigious award. He quickly points out that the Lawrence award is “individually conferred” because that’s the way it is set up, “but I and the 300 other people in pulsed power knew that it was recognition of the excellence of pulsed power at the time. That was a high.”

“The first shot of PBFA I [particle beam fusion accelerator 1, the first of the big pulsed power accelerators of which the Z machine is the current manifestation] was a high. It was on a Saturday morning at work.” He says the crew wanted to immediately repeat the shot but that wasn’t the plan. “I went to see the first Star Wars movie that day, which had just opened, and I looked around and there were probably 15 or 20 Sandians who were there also and still charged up over the morning activities.”

The first shot on PBFA II, on Dec. 11, 1985, was “another great experience.”

“The nice thing about pulsed power is that we are still only at the beginning. The achievements have been miraculous in the last 10 years, and there is still so much more science and engineering that’s going to come from these people. I look forward to cheering them on.

Magnificent acheivements

Pace quickly reels off a host of Sandia contributions. He calls each “a magnificent achievement”: the W88 AF&F and now the W76-1, the MTI satellite, MicroChemLab, decontamination foam, the progress in bio, each launch of the targets for ballistic missile defense, MESA, the Red Storm computer, the SCN [Sandia Classified Network], Oracle, solar-generated hydrogen with nanotechnology — all are examples of Sandia “magnificent achievements,” he says.

“They are real accomplishments by teams of Sandians doing what would seem to be impossible things. It’s a thrill, every one of them. Just reading the Accomplishments publication every year renews the high, so I’ve had the pleasure of tens of highs.”

Will it be hard to leave Sandia? Pace points out that he did it once before. He went on a technology transfer leave of absence for two-and-a-half years, “and found that Sandia did just fine without me and will do so again.”

“So I know what it feels like to terminate from Sandia,” Pace says. “Industrial psychologist Harry Levinson told me, ‘All change is loss and all loss has to be mourned.’ I expect to mourn but it will be a gateway to a new adventure.”

But he quickly adds: “In fact, once you are a Sandian you are always a Sandian, at heart. Sandia will still be here and I will be watching it and cheering it on as I try to do something really different.”