One-on-one with Jill Hruby - Albuquerque Journal

One-on-one with Jill Hruby

Jill Hruby had her first management position before she even had a high school diploma.

Jill Hruby, director of Sandia National Laboratories. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)
Jill Hruby, director of Sandia National Laboratories. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

She was just 13 when she started working for the concessionaire at University of Michigan sporting events and not much older by the time she had her own crew reporting to her. Even her supervisors came to count on Hruby to mitigate the potential disasters associated with handling hungry, 100,000-fan crowds at one of the country’s most storied football stadiums.

“Occasionally, I’d get these calls (when off duty) – ‘You have to come in and help us; we’re way behind in getting the stock out’ or whatever,” Hruby says. “I remember one time … I got one of these calls and asked my dad to drive me to the football stadium. And we got there and my boss at the time was waiting behind the gate saying, ‘Oh, my god. Thanks.’ And my dad couldn’t believe it – first that I had a key to get into the football stadium, which he couldn’t believe because that’s a big deal to get into the Michigan football stadium, and that it was one of these things that was so urgent that my boss was waiting for me to arrive to take care of the issue.”

Others have been entrusting Hruby with major responsibility ever since.

Last year, Hruby was handed the figurative keys to another massive operation when she was named director at Sandia National Laboratories. With an annual operating budget of about $2.8 billion and about 11,000 employees – the bulk working on Sandia’s Albuquerque campus – she holds one of the highest-profile positions in New Mexico.

And she made some history in attaining it: Hruby is the first woman to ever head a U.S. nuclear weapons lab.

It was a role she says she never imagined. Despite having been promoted into a management position within six years of joining the laboratory’s Livermore, Calif., site and continuing to work her way up, she never saw herself as an obvious director candidate.

“There were lots of things that were working against me getting this position,” she says from her spacious office. “On some level, you could say logically ‘I’m on this path.’ (But) I was a woman, I had a master’s degree and not a Ph.D. I spent almost my entire career at Sandia in California, which is our small site. So there were so many things that made that improbable.”

But now that she’s there, she’s happy to make her mark.

“I really do hope that it does actually bust a stereotype that women both think more of themselves in the position, but also, more importantly, that everybody, men and women, recognize just different talent sets that might be their boss,” she says.

Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.

A: I think I wasn’t a particularly easy teenager. I was always a great student. … I liked school. I worked hard. I particularly liked math (and also) science. But I also enjoyed English and history, and pretty much the whole gamut of stuff … . I worked hard but, outside of that, I would say I had a bit of a defiant streak and liked to sort of do things my own way and discover things for myself. But it could’ve been worse. The place I was born was actually Defiance, Ohio. I actually only lived there while I was an infant. My parents moved (to Michigan), but there’s this long joke: Every time anybody hears “Oh, your birth city is Defiance? Mmm-hmm. Explains it.”

Q: Were your interests mostly academic growing up?

A: I suppose maybe a dominant interest was academics, but I played a lot of sports. I loved playing sports. … You know, there weren’t organized women’s sports when I was growing up so … I played softball in the streets using sewers as the bases. I remember it well. But (I played) just about everything: soccer, softball, basketball. My mom used to say if it had a ball, I was interested, so pretty much any sport with a ball, I guess. But I liked lots of things. I didn’t have a specialty like today people are (only) gymnasts or whatever; I didn’t do that. I kind of did everything. (I was) pretty social too. I wasn’t like a serious, bookish person. I enjoyed a good party as well as anybody else.

Q: What were your career aspirations when you headed to Purdue University?

A: I started at Purdue as a math major only because I really liked math and I was really good at it. And I went to Purdue to a large extent because it was sort of the right distance from home – it was a good school that wasn’t in my hometown. … I didn’t go to Purdue because it was great at such-and-such. … And so I started in math, but Purdue is a huge engineering school and so, once I got there, there was sort of a lot of ability to understand engineering. They had, and still do have, a fairly active Society of Women Engineers, so they really try to help women integrate into an engineering curricula and be successful. So I got there and decided, “Well, I should major in something that I could actually get a job in.” Engineering is sort of the ultimate example of that. It was then and still is.

Q: Your first six years at Sandia were on the technical side. What research from that time are you particularly proud of?

A: There were two areas of research that I spent enough time in to really understand, and one was in solar energy. That was during the Carter administration right when renewable energies got a big boost because there was the first energy crisis. So, in solar, we were working on sort of new concepts and we came up with this idea that we called “solid particle receivers” – so to use materials, something like black sand, to absorb the solar energy and then you could store it warm, and it would retain its heat and you could get these to very high temperatures without melting. … It was really a brand new concept, and we put teams together to start working on it and that was really fun. Now it turned out that the interest in solar energy kind of went away, but I’m happy to report that, just a couple years ago, the solar team here started working on particle receivers again. It took a while for its time to come back, but Sandia’s now doing research with partners in particle receivers. I did work in the weapons program for a while on components that I got very familiar with, but probably am not allowed to talk about. Then I had an opportunity on sort of the open side again to work on microsystems. Microsystems were becoming really popular. … I would always say a characteristic of my technical career was I work on things that about 20 years after I work on get really popular again. … It was in solar and the weapons program we did. Now we’re still waiting on the comeback of the microsystems. They’re still working on it in other countries, but I’m confident it’s going to come back here.

Q: So what’s going to be the big thing 20 years from now?

A: I’m not working on technical things anymore, so I can’t judge it by my career, but I’ll say what I’ve seen lately is the revolution in biology is remarkable. And I think that’s going to produce things 20 years from now. It already is, treatment technologies and things like that, but I think we just barely got started. We’re going to see all kinds of things happen as a result of the revolution of understanding biology and how it will connect with engineering.

Q: How would you describe yourself as a boss?

A: I’d say there’s some contradictory things. I do like to be productive. I like to get things done and I’m willing to make decisions to get things done. But at the same time, I enjoy other opinions. In fact, I frequently say things to elicit other opinions because I know people will disagree with me. I like to have a good conversation about things and get opinions, but I also like to get things moving along. … I love to get to know people and understand what motivates them and put that all together into moving (toward) what we’re trying to do. I’ve always enjoyed that and, when it works, to me it’s like the best thing. It’s magical. It doesn’t always work, right? You don’t always have everything you need, but that definitely motivates me as a boss. And I like to have fun. We spend a lot of time here, so I try to keep an atmosphere where people can have fun, relieve a little stress with each other.

Q: How does one do that at a national lab?

A: Just take your work seriously, but not yourself. You’ve got to be careful about keeping that whole thing in balance.

Q: Why do you think so much was made of you becoming the first woman to ever lead a nuclear weapons lab? Were you surprised by that?

A: That so much was made of it? I guess a little bit. It was a bigger deal than I think I expected. I should say I expected it to be somewhat of a deal, because it was a pretty serious glass ceiling, not only at our labs in the U.S. – especially our national security labs – but all over the world. This just isn’t a place where you see women as the lab director. But the response to that from outside Sandia was pretty surprising to me. I got emails from people all over the place. Not even in the lab system. I mean in the lab system and outside the lab system, it was a pretty remarkable response.

Q: How do you see Sandia’s role within the larger Albuquerque community?

A: Because we’re a science and technology laboratory (it’s) clearly sort of trying to get innovation and tech spinoffs from Sandia. That’s a place we can sort of uniquely contribute – not exclusively us, but a place where we have a responsibility to contribute. But we do way more in the community. Our laboratory employees are incredibly generous, (including through) our annual employee contribution campaigns to give money to the community. (Editor’s note: Sandia employees donated more than $6.5 million in 2015 through the United Way of Central New Mexico.) I think people understand the need in Albuquerque, and how fortunate we are, and they give back. They give back their time and they give back financially through our annual campaign to do that, and we have an incredible number of volunteer hours (92,000 in 2015). And we do a lot of business in the community. We buy a lot of things. We just released our 2015 economic impact and so there’s a lot of things we do in the community. But this business of trying to get innovation and trying to get startup companies is an area that there aren’t very many (others). I would say that AFRL, The Air Force Research Laboratory, also does a fair bit and, of course, Los Alamos in Northern New Mexico, but there’s just a few of us that have the ability to do that.

Q: What do you do for fun outside of work?

A: Well, there’s not a lot of time outside of work. To the extent I can arrange this with my travel schedule, my husband and I love live music and Albuquerque’s got a good live music scene, I think. Unfortunately, a lot of it is on weekdays, which is problematic for me.

Q: If you weren’t doing this, what else could you see yourself doing?

A: Teaching. … Or I think the other career that I seriously considered was pediatrician. You might get the idea that I like kids.

Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?

A: There’s a compliment – and I hear it a lot – something like “Even when we disagree, I always have a lot of respect for you.” This is sort of the decision-making (process). We’re not going to come to consensus, but I will always explain.

Q: What is something most people don’t know about you?

A: I really do like to cook. I joke (that) it’s my only opportunity to be in the lab still.

Q: What is one food you can’t live without?

A: I eat a load of vegetables. I’m trying to figure out if I have a favorite vegetable. In-season vegetables, I’d say (generally). My kids were vegetarians for a long time, so we ate vegetarian for a long time. While we don’t strictly eat vegetarian anymore, I couldn’t live without good vegetarian food.

Q: That’s the healthiest answer I’ve ever had to that question.

A: Well, red wine would be next. (laughs) It’s not really a food group.

Q: What was your last splurge?

A: Almost has to be Albuquerque jewelry. I like art a lot. My husband and I both like art a lot, and I think it’s a wonderful thing about Albuquerque, especially the Native American art here. So almost all my splurges are some Native American art or jewelry in particular.

Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?

A: I would have to say hard-working. It would be a lie not to say that. … Eclectic – (for my) eclectic pleasures. I do engineering, but I love art and I love music, so there’s a diverse (mix). … I really love spending time with young people and, even though my kids aren’t very young anymore, I just think that’s pretty special. … I guess maybe (the word is) playful.


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