John F. Hedderich III, Director of ARDEC
(Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey)
Interviewed by Paul Jackson, Publisher, Harlem Times
P: Can you tell me about yourself? Where did you grow up? How about parents, brothers and sisters? Tell me about some of your education choices. I know you studied mechanical engineering at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
I grew up about 10 minutes from the George Washington Bridge in Bergenfield, N.J. I was born in Hackensack. I lived in Teaneck until I was about 6 years old, then moved to Bergenfield. My dad was a butcher at A & P. My mom was a bookkeeper until she stayed home to raise the family. I’m one of four, having three sisters. I grew up in a very close family. My dad always believed in sticking together and taking care of each other. If my sisters and I would have an argument or a fight, he would sit us all on the couch and make us put our heads together. We would just sit there until we started cracking-up laughing. We would realize it was stupid and forget about why we were fighting.
That’s how I actually live my life. It is my leadership style. If people are arguing I will get them together and talk. I’m a believer in looking at someone face to face and working hard. I make time for my people. It is not always easy. You can say you’re really busy and make up an excuse, but there are no good excuses. If you are going to be a leader, you have to make time for your people.
P: What motivated you to choose engineering as a career?
I was always interested in taking things apart and figuring out how things worked. I thought I was going to be a machinist. My dad and mom pushed me to go ahead and become an engineer. They wanted me to try to go one step further. They told me I seemed to be good at math so why not just try. My father couldn’t afford to pay for school so he told me, “you can have free room and board, so get a job, start saving and figure out how to pay for it.” So, I supported myself for four years of college. I paid for my education. The reason I went to Teaneck for school was I lived right there in Bergenfield. I went from 1976 to 1980. My father was in the Navy and was a 30% disabled vet. He believed in community service. That was the beginning of where I am today. Fairleigh Dickinson was great and I was president of the Association for Mechanical Engineering.
P: Let’s go over some questions about Picatinny Arsenal. Picatinny is going to be working on some things with New York City. How are you going to work together on both man-made and natural disasters?
We’ve been working with New York City, Philadelphia, Newark and West Orange for many years. We work with the police, fire departments and active shooter demonstrations. The question is how will the people react to a disaster? When you consider our missions or even how to fire a gun it takes all kinds of thinking. Analyze the data all around you. Many of the decision aids, sensors and devices we use to develop weapons can be used. Those algorithms and analysis can be used the same way. This can be done when you’re worried about how crowds are going to react to different disasters. Logistics will change. If you think about water and food, and having to move people from one place to another that is pretty much like ammunition. All of those parallels that we do every day have a direct connection to civilian life. We regularly test our communication systems for weapons and the same lessons learned can also apply to civilians. The supporting technology, will help limit a disaster’s damage. It’s all available as we continue our partnership with the City of New York. We are involved with our communities, local, state, or national. Taxpayers have been paying a lot of money and we are ready if needed.
P: How many people work at Picatinny?
If you include contracted and civil service personnel, it would be 5500 to 6000.
P: What type of work do Picatinny scientists and engineers do? What are their primary duties?
The main areas are energetics, explosives, propellants and techniques. If you want something to fly through the air you use aerodynamics. You have to have a sense of electronics to survive. Electrical and computer science engineers are increasing as a percentage but the bigger chunk is mechanical and chemical. We have thousands of engineers here. Every element of engineering is here. We have physicists, chemists, technicians that run machine shops and accomplished programmers because most equipment is run by computers. It is not just the scientist at the top end, we have everything in between.
P: What are some of the steps in your career that helped you get to this position?
First, become an expert in an area. Before floating at multiple jobs find your niche at something and make your mark. I made my mark in an area called tank ammunition. I started in the eighties during the cold war. Then tank ammunition was a huge challenge. It had to defeat the armor of that day. I was able to learn in multiple areas. I learned by taking on any challenge my management gave me. In my career I always wanted the job no one wanted to do. That is something in which I take great pride. Don’t be afraid to take on challenges. I learned to listen to everyone and to keep my mind open. Try to understand where the other person is coming from. I still make mistakes and still learn from them.
P: What advice would you give to scholars in college or high school?
Number one, follow your dreams and keep an open mind. The people you connect with shape the way you think. Go into science. It leads to any path you want. Set your sights high! Don’t just work 100% on things, work 120%. Listen to yourself and people. Take to heart what people tell you.
P: What job do you think will be most in demand in twenty years?
That’s a good question. They are still going to need a mixture of computers and science. Have a variety of specialties. An engineering position in the commercial sector is going to be more in demand. The world is heading to different ways of making things. All of the disciplines are starting to merge. As people live longer they will need more doctors. That’s an area I would also consider.
P: What is Picatinny doing to attract more students from under represented populations?
Picatinny has been given the opportunity to hire additional employees this year and has expanded its outreach program. We had to retrain our recruiters. We’ve targeted our HBCU effort. We also worked through the STEM Education Office. We want to do more outreach. The only way to get people attracted here is for them to know we exist. We have to make sure our phones are open so when people seek information we respond. We also have a webpage people can see. We’re trying to open up through advertisement. We had a job fair. We had over 300 people register. By the end of the day we had over 750 people here.
P: Why would someone want to work at Picatinny Arsenal?
They have a love for security and understand that the work we do provides people with the comfort that they can go home to their families in peace. You’re not going to become a millionaire working for the government. If you wanted to serve in the military and couldn’t, this could be your opportunity. The real job is how many lives did you save today? Think of that challenge. That’s what you do here all day. You will be working on many things. We value openness to new challenges. That’s what armament engineers do. You will do well here too because we need all types of people. Belief in diversity and the challenge to bring our soldiers safely home are why people want to work here.
P: What advice can you give our Harlem Times readers?
Find new ideas and follow your dreams to your career. Come to a place like Picatinny to learn what success feels like. We have a 1% turnover rate. We are here to be a national asset. We hope students take advantage of living in our area and the educational opportunities associated with it. Get your college degree and remember Picatinny Arsenal and the opportunities it offers.