D. Wayne Snodgrass
Electrical Engineering, Class of 1962, BS
Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, Class of 1968, BS
D. Wayne Snodgrass’ life changed on Oct. 4, 1957.
That was the day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and shook the world in a startling moment of technological bravado. The New York Times blared, “Soviet fires earth satellite into space,” followed a month later by the Los Angeles Times in full “Sputnik Mania” vibe: “Mystery air objects seen in sky over LA.” The Space Race was on, with no end in sight.
Snodgrass had just started college at Virginia Tech. His mind was set on civil engineering after teen job stints constructing highways, bridges, and school buildings. That was over. He changed his path to electrical engineering.
“I wanted to join the fight,” he said, ironically during an interview taking place on the exact day of the 56th anniversary of the Sputnik launch. “You could sit there and watch this Soviet satellite on a clear night, watch it sail over your head. It was just chilling… We were concerned that our country was in trouble.”
The Abingdon, Virginia, native, raised in nearby Bristol as the son of school teachers, intended to focus on a forestry service career, after exploring the Appalachian Trail. A friend of Snodgrass’ father encouraged the young man to go into engineering, pointing to Snodgrass’ excellent science and math scores in high school. Snodgrass and his dad had frequently watched a nearby large dam under construction by the Tennessee Valley Authority. He accepted the advice.
Snodgrass entered engineering at Virginia Tech, joining “F” Company in the Corps of Cadets. On the side, between studying and his corps duties, he ran varsity track and field, a sport continued from high school.
Snodgrass held odd jobs through the year while in school and during summer, working in the post office, on road construction crews, and delivering milk. Upon his graduation in 1962, the Space Race and the Arms Race were in full swing, with high-tech aerospace and defense companies hiring hundreds of engineers. National security was on the line, not profit.
Snodgrass interviewed at several companies and received three offers. The chance to move out west took hold, and Snodgrass chose Douglas Aircraft. He started working on the engineering issues for the design teams and the manufacturing teams. “We were developing systems that no one had ever dreamed of before,” Snodgrass said. He focused on missiles, rockets, and space vehicles.
What he thought was a temporary move to California became much longer and included several states. “I figured that I’d go see what it was like, maybe stay out there for six months or a year and come back to Virginia where I belong,” he said. “Well, I never quite made it back to Virginia other than to visit friends and family.”
Snodgrass said his early career was buoyed by the good fortune of working with some of the brightest minds in the country. “I was thrown into a wonderful environment of committed creative people,” he said. He made friends fast, and worked on several design and development teams.
He also met his future wife, Dorothy, who also worked at Douglas, supporting the Apollo procurement, then missile design groups. She hailed from Powell, Wyoming, the same hometown of W. Edwards Deming, the statistician who developed statistical process control and changed the world’s manufacturing protocol to focus on continuous improvement.
At Douglas, Snodgrass worked in developing the Apollo and Delta space programs, and then the Nike, Sky Bolt, and Spartan missile programs. After several years he moved into engineering management, a conscious decision as he saw younger, more technologically advanced engineers enter his design teams. “I found that I could lead and encourage the conceptual creators better than I could compete with them,” Snodgrass said.
By 1967, Douglas merged with McDonnell to become McDonnell-Douglas, one of the largest aerospace powerhouses of the time. Snodgrass also officially finished work on his industrial engineering and operations research degree in 1968, having started on it during his first tenure at Virginia Tech. A snafu rule change made during his undergraduate years prevented him from earning two degrees at once.
Snodgrass also pursued graduate studies in business and engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, and at the University of Southern California, eager to become equally savvy on the manufacturing floor and in the executive suites. Snodgrass went on to manage several battlefield weapons and missile programs being developed in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas for McDonnell-Douglas.
In 1981, Snodgrass was lured away to Gould Inc., to lead its business development programs, and soon was appointed as vice president and general manager. There he was responsible for developing and producing the Navy’s Torpedoes, Targets, and Sea Lance Standoff Weapon.
He led the implementation of continuous improvement processes in design, development, and manufacturing (total quality, six sigma, lean, and supplier teams). With Snodgrass’ leadership, Gould captured most of the highly competitive programs in these weapon systems, developed in California, Ohio, Rhode Island, and the state of Washington.
“Again, I worked with many of the world’s most creative engineers and scientists in naval weapons. These people were truly the world’s best,” said Snodgrass.
As much as Sputnik sent Snodgrass on a different path during college, the end of the Cold War in 1991 also spurred a new path. Systems and technology once used to defend the nation moved to new theaters, with varying non-defense uses. Snodgrass said much of the early technology and military systems that he focused on had become outdated, and many of the companies had become smaller or folded into other larger corporations. “Until the 1990s, we knew who our enemy was, and we knew the Soviets were after our intelligence and systems, and that encouraged us to be better and smarter,” Snodgrass said, adding that the reverse was also true. American achievements propelled Soviet technology advancements, creating a back-and-forth cycle.
Snodgrass’ career took him next to Westinghouse Naval Systems, where he was named general manager of antisubmarine warfare and ship systems. There, he oversaw development of naval submarine combat systems, sonars, radars, torpedoes, torpedo defense, and undersea weapons in facilities in Maryland, New York, and Ohio. The Westinghouse defense business was acquired by Northrop Grumman and he was named president of the latter’s subsidiary Norden Systems in Norwalk, Connecticut. There he oversaw air-to-ground radar systems and helped turn the underperformer into the profitable leader in airport radars and in defense ground/sea surveillance radars, moving target indicators, and moving target intercept systems.
In 2001, Snodgrass was named as Northrop Grumman’s vice president of engineering and manufacturing for its electronic systems sector. He was responsible for 14,000 employees and 53 separate facility locations spread across the United States, and performing on 250 aerospace and defense programs and 12,000 contracts. His focus was on people, programs, processes, and performance, echoing lessons learned from Deming.
Snodgrass retired in 2004 per policy for corporate officers. Now, young engineers in the field look to him as a mentor, and as a veteran of the Cold War space and arms race as Snodgrass did to older engineers when he entered the field during the Sputnik era. “I was very fortunate to have worked with these top individuals and these performance teams,” he said.
Snodgrass’ efforts are held high by his peers and across engineering. “Wayne’s [combined] disciplines excelled at the highest levels of industrial management,” said F. William Stephenson, emeritus dean of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering. In their nomination of him, Paul Plassmann, professor and then interim-department head of the Virginia Tech Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and G. Don Taylor, the department head of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech, said, “His accomplishments are well known to many in the Virginia Tech engineering community and the national defense industry.”
Snodgrass has since served on the advisory board, including a stint as chair of the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, and on the College of Engineering’s Committee of 100. He also has served on the board of visitors for the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering; and is a life member of the National Defense Industry Association, and the Navy League, among other defense-themed boards and associations. Snodgrass also is active in 22 non-profit organizations covering a wide watch of topics close to his heart, including the Methodist church, education, and history.
“Looking back, this could not have happened without the love and support from my family,” said Snodgrass. “My wife, Dottie, and our daughters, Jenn and Kim, who experienced eight relocations, deserve much of the credit. This was a dream career for a Hokie engineer who graduated with less than stellar grades. We are thankful to have received so many blessings.”
Class of: 1962 (EE), Class of: 1968 (IEOR)
Year Inducted into Academy: 2014