One-on-One with Suzanne Beckstoffer
- Suzanne Beckstoffer, an accomplished engineering leader and business woman, the first woman president in SNAME’s 125 year history. Photo: HII/NNS
- Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding completed the development of the detail design phase for the Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) in the 3-dimensional Product Model. Image: HII/NNS
One-on-one with Suzanne Beckstoffer, an accomplished engineering leader and business woman, the first woman president in SNAME’s 125 year history.
As the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2018, it will celebrate another historical milestone at the start of 2019 when Suzanne M. Beckstoffer takes the helm of SNAME as president, the first woman to hold this position in the association’s history. We met recently with Beckstoffer to discuss her distinguished shipbuilding career, as well as her insights on the value of SNAME as a powerful networking and career-building tool.
When did you first know that you were destined for a career in maritime?
I became an engineer because of my 10th grade math teacher, Mrs. Baldwin. We students all thought she was the meanest old woman who ever lived, but in fact she was an excellent teacher. She even drove another girl and I to NC State University for a weekend seminar on engineering careers for women. I took one look at the water lab in the civil engineering building and I was hooked!
Later, when I graduated from college with my civil engineering degree, I really wanted to live near the coast and build bridges. Unfortunately, no bridge-building job offers came through, but shipbuilding was certainly near the water and looked interesting, so I decided to try it. I am fortunate to have had so many exciting opportunities at Newport News Shipbuilding to use both my engineering and business skills. Shipbuilding was a great career choice!
This is a good testament to the power of educators!
It is. In fact, a few years ago I had reached some significant career milestones and realized I’d never properly said “thank-you” to Mrs. Baldwin. I investigated and found she was living in a retirement community in my hometown, so I sent her a letter telling her about some of the interesting things I’d done, and expressing my appreciation for her setting me onto this terrific engineering career path. She kindly wrote back, actually remembered me, and seemed pleased to know her teaching had made an impact. Well, about two months later I learned that Mrs. Baldwin had died, and that my letter was read at her funeral. I’m so pleased I got to tell her how much her influence had meant and I would encourage others to say thank you to their teachers!
Let’s discuss your shipbuilding career, specifically the challenges of being a woman, rising through the ranks in a field dominated by men.
My mother never expected her daughter to work in a shipyard! My parents are both educators, and encouraged my academic interests, but I think they believed my love of math would lead to a career in finance. Maybe now that I’m Chairman of the Board of BayPort Credit Union, they think I’m finally doing what they’d expected all along.
Newport News Shipbuilding is a great place to work for anybody with the skills and interest in shipbuilding. Our current president Jennifer Boykin attended the Merchant Marine Academy, and several other vice-presidents are women. Clearly the workforce has become more diverse since I started my career.
Everyone has challenges, any job has ups and downs, and anything worth doing takes hard work, and I am proud and grateful for my career at the shipyard. Every time I see one of the ships I worked on in the news on some important mission, I feel a sense of pride in being part of something much bigger than myself.
I remember my first job interview in the Hull Technical Department in 1982. Mr. Coward, the department head, was talking on the phone when I arrived. I waited at the door until he finished his conversation, when he spun around in chair, saw me, and blurted out, “You don’t look like an engineer, you look more like a girl to me!”
We both had a good laugh, made our introductions, and carried on with the interview and plant visit. He turned out to be a good mentor and friend, and in fact I still make his She-Crab Soup recipe for Thanksgiving and special events.
Several of my bosses and colleagues over the years also proved to be good mentors. Most were much older than I was and had children about my age. I think some of them realized their own daughters would also join the workforce and they were modeling the way they hoped their family members would be treated.
What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishment at NNS?
Looking back over my 34-year career at NNS, I see a new technology theme in nearly every position I held. When I first arrived at the company, ship designs were still done by pen and ink. I was one of the first 10 people who learned how to use CADAM, the company’s first computer-aided design software package. I also spent nearly a decade working on the company’s in-house 3D solid modeling software VIVID which we used to design the SEAWOLF submarine.
Later, I managed the waterfront installation and production testing of our $40 million robotic cutting and welding lines called the Automated Steel Factory.
During early development of the FORD Class aircraft carrier program, I worked with our Innovation Center and the Navy to identify cost-saving technologies for the new ship design. Then I had the chance to lead our Research & Development organization for several years, an exciting opportunity to explore more innovations for our key product lines and manufacturing processes. One project I’m particularly proud of is our pioneering use of immersive 3D visualization to “walk through” and review ship spaces before construction; our design, planning, and construction folks all made use of it, as well as the Navy customer.
The last project I led before retiring was the company’s migration from one computer toolset to another for design, planning, construction and lifecycle support. Just to make it a little tougher, we were also in the middle of Ford design and construction at the time. We had to migrate the entire ship design with near-perfect accuracy and re-train the workforce to use new software while maintaining production schedules.
Looking back, it is gratifying to see so many of the technologies I helped introduce still in use or foundations of continued advancement.
How has the industry evolved most dramatically?
Shipbuilding goes back to the Phoenicians and used to be considered a dirty and dangerous job. Shipbuilding today is remarkably sophisticated. There is still a high level of expert craftsmanship, and now it benefits from virtual tools, augmented reality, robotics, and advanced manufacturing technology.
What one technology do you believe made the process of shipbuilding more efficient?
From my experience, the 3D product model has been transformational in ship design and construction. It’s hard to believe now, but I remember when designers from each discipline – piping, mechanical, ventilation, etc. – were basically working blindly in a space, not knowing where the other designers were running their systems.
A skilled and experienced designer had to take all those systems, envision them in space, and try to build a composite drawing of everything in the compartment. It looked like spaghetti and of course there were always fouls from systems running into each other. Then the trades would build enormous full-scale wood and plastic mockups of the most significant ship spaces (think: whole submarine inside a building!) to ensure they could build what was shown on the drawings.
Finally, when actual construction got underway, the shipfitters would have to locate and fix any remaining fouls and figure out the to-fit work. It took a lot of skill and know-how to put everything together. Now all the design and construction planning work is done in a single product model. Each discipline can see the others and downstream customers can walk through the design as it develops. What a difference!
How long have you been a member of SNAME? How did SNAME impact your career?
I’ve been a SNAME member for 35 years. My first supervisor at the shipyard recommended I get involved with SNAME as a way of building my professional network. Then he made sure I was appointed House Committee Chair for the Hampton Roads Section, so I had to check in all meeting attendees and got to know people quickly. He also occasionally asked me to review and comment on technical papers.
My favorite memories of those early SNAME years were the opportunities to rub elbows with senior company executives. Mr. Ed Campbell and Mr. Pat Phillips were presidents of Newport News Shipbuilding; both also served terms as SNAME presidents, and they regularly attended the local section meetings, too. It was great for a young engineer to meet company leaders and they also got to see me take leadership roles at the local level at a very young age. It was a good way to stand out from the crowd and become recognized by management as a can-do person.
You are set to take over as SNAME president in 2019, the first woman president of the organization. Why did you want the job?
SNAME has been my professional organization throughout my entire career. SNAME has provided many education and leadership opportunities and is the backbone of my maritime business network. I’ve also served as a volunteer at local, regional, and national levels for more than three decades. Now it’s an honor to represent my industry and I’m looking forward to serving as President as SNAME celebrates 125 years.
Looking at the organization today compared to when you joined, how is it the same and how is it different?
I see a lot of fresh energy at SNAME. We’ve grown our student sections and branched out internationally. The maritime and offshore industries are truly international and projects in our field span the globe, so it’s appropriate that our professional society be global, too. What hasn’t changed is SNAME’s strong base of volunteer member-leaders.
Every leader has goals. As incoming president of SNAME, what are your top goals?
One of my favorite jobs is strategic planning. The SNAME Planning Committee and I have been working diligently on strategies that will position the Society for a strong future and sustainable growth.
Increasing SNAME membership value and establishing strong relationships across the maritime communities are two major focus areas. Our SNAME events, research programs, industry partnerships, educational activities, and member sections are already good; I want us to go from good to superb!
We also need to actively engage our student members as they graduate and build their careers. It’s part of our professional duty to provide these young professionals with leadership and education opportunities, and mentor them to be the SNAME leaders of tomorrow.
Another area that engineers often struggle with is marketing and communications. Sometimes the old introverted nerdy engineer jokes hit a bit too close to home. So, we are working with SNAME’s excellent professional staff to help us spread the word about the great work we do. We have exciting STEM programs for young people, stories to tell about the fascinating work SNAME members perform, interesting research work underway, and many amazing job opportunities in the maritime industry. We need to let our SNAME lights shine!
What do you see as the defining technical trends driving maritime toward the future?
Autonomous vessels are an interesting development in the maritime business, and I think we’re just beginning to see the impact and future implications. Like self-driving cars on land, autonomous vessels have enormous potential. From my own background in nuclear-powered ship design and construction, we are seeing increased automation in ship operations that helps reduce costs, but large naval vessels are not yet ready for unmanned operations. However, commercial and smaller naval ships are getting closer to unmanned operations in certain circumstances. And of course, unmanned aerial and undersea vehicles are already in active use in many naval and commercial applications.
As SNAME president, do you plan to make training and education a focus?
When I decided to retire from Newport News Shipbuilding, I started planning over a year in advance for what I wanted to do in the next phase of my life. In fact, I converted a little blue SNAME notebook into my personal strategy and detailed action plan. On the first page, as I defined my new professional persona, engineering education rose to the top of the list.
SNAME already has a strong educational focus at the university level. SNAME is a member of ABET, the organization that accredits university engineering, science, and technology programs. I want SNAME’s education program to span all the way from elementary through college and professional education. We already have several strong programs, and many more opportunities to grow. One of my personal favorites is The Apprentice School SNAME Boat Design Competition, led by the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentices’ SNAME student section.
For more than a decade they’ve involved over 200 high school students annually in a clever boat design competition that introduces the students to fundamentals of ship design and construction. The best part is the four top designs are actually constructed from sheet metal by the apprentices and the students get to race them on Lake Maury behind the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News. It’s fabulous, and the design competition has created a wonderful pipeline of students into shipbuilding careers