‘I’m here because I want to make a difference’

For Matt Johnson, pit manufacturing means keeping the world safe

May 13, 2024

Division Leader Matt Johnson (left) guides a tour inside the Plutonium Facility in March 2023. Visitors included U.S. Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Marv Adams, second from the right. Johnson frequently leads tours for VIP visitors such as Adams, the Nuclear Weapons Council and the Secretary of Energy; their visits reflect the priority of the Laboratory’s national security missions.

If you're at Los Alamos National Laboratory and happen to encounter Matt Johnson, don't be surprised if this busy leader smiles and stops to ask you how he can help. That’s the essence of the type of manager—and person—he is.

As the leader of the Pit Technologies division at the Lab, Matt oversees six groups that cover national security manufacturing, operations and professional support.

Matt grew up in Colorado Springs and attended school at the nearby Colorado School of Mines. There, he gained three degrees — a bachelor's, master's and doctorate, all in Metallurgical Materials Engineering with a focus on high-strength steel. He finished his doctorate in 1996 and took a position in Columbus, Ohio, at the Edison Molding Institute, where he worked alongside industrial companies across the globe to support welding, engineering and manufacturing. There was one problem with his job in Columbus, though — not enough sunshine! When a former classmate from Mines told him about Los Alamos, he and his wife, Cheryl, thought it might be just the change they were looking for.

Anand Somasekharan (left) and Matt Johnson (right) accept the 2021 Defense Programs Award of Excellence on behalf of the W87-1 Pit Product Realization Team, a cross-enterprise effort that involves Los Alamos, Livermore, and Kansas City National Security Campus and is ensuring the success of the pit manufacturing mission.

A career across the Laboratory

Matt started his career at the Lab in 2002. His first assignments included work with confinement vessels used at firing sites such as Nevada National Security Site. Matt's deep knowledge of high-strength steel made him a perfect fit for the research and fabrication of these explosive-proof containers. Shortly after joining the Lab, Matt accepted the position as the Welding and Joining team leader supporting national security manufacturing, the hydrotest program and welding efforts across the nuclear weapons complex. Over time, Matt made his way across many programs at the Laboratory.

"One of the cool things about my time at the Lab is I've been able to work in three of the major directorates — Science, Technology & Engineering; Weapons; and Global Security," Matt said. "I've seen the Weapons Program from both the design and production agency side.”

Why the mission matters

Across the Lab, the "mission" is mentioned a lot — but what does it really mean on a national and global scale? Matt has found that, for early career employees or recruits who didn't live through the Cold War, the answer to that question is, understandably, not always clear.

For Sean McDonald, former program director for ALDWP's Strategic Planning and Analysis office, the mission became clear to him over his long career supporting both the Department of Energy and Department of Defense in Washington, D.C.

"The essence of deterrence is that the adversary knows our systems will work as designed," Sean explains. "Credibility underpins our deterrence strategy, and that credibility requires the ability to make pits. People like Matt are crucial to reestablishing the ability to make pits at a rate sufficient to help meet DOD requirements. This is one of the most important priorities for our nation's defense."

Matt says he believes that everything done at the Lab — far beyond specific programs — touches on why we have the freedoms that we enjoy in the U.S.

"When do we practice deterrence?" Matt asks. "Today, right now. Our work shows the world — our allies and our adversaries — that we take world peace seriously."

Matt has a bit of fun during a quick leadership portrait session in 2021. Amid his high-stress role, he's known for always taking the time to laugh and smile.

Beyond compliance

To meet the national security mission, Matt believes good leadership and good relationships with employees is a key to success.

"We have a very strong core set of staff that believe in what we're doing and why we're doing it. They're very creative and innovative, and that foundation is what we've been growing our culture from.

"There's 'compliant,' and there's 'committed.' Compliant folks show up, do the job, go home. Our folks are committed to the mission and to the job — that's what makes the difference for a successful mission.

"One of our challenges is to transition from an artisan process to a more routine, systematic approach to manufacturing," Matt explains. "This is production — training new operators, bringing on equipment, solving hard problems. It’s not without its challenges, but we have that strong foundation of our team being committed to the mission."

A mission of global importance

One of Matt's biggest reasons to support the nuclear enterprise in the U.S.? For the Allies.

"This is really important to me. You can look at world events today and see it's as dangerous as it's been since the Cuban Missile crisis. Without a reliable nuclear deterrent, which includes pit manufacturing, we can't be credible. If our allies can't depend on us to produce pits in the quantities needed to support the global need, they're going to do it themselves. That could lead to an arms race, and the world would become a much more dangerous place.

"Our allies could develop these capabilities, but they don't because they count on us. It's safer and more secure if we do it and let our allies depend on us."

Matt (back right) with PT leaders and administrators at a thank-you lunch during Administrative Professionals Week in April 2023.

Commitment is key

Over the last few years, the growing pit mission meant an increase in new employees joining the workforce. His main advice for newer employees?

"Go engage with your co-workers. One of the neatest things about the Lab is there is always someone, somewhere who can answer any question. I find that phenomenal.

"We are working with some of the smartest, brightest and most innovative people in the nation. To be able to interact with that set of people and then make a difference in the world is a unique opportunity, and I really want everyone at the Lab to engage in that."

No matter the day, no matter the achievement or the challenge, Matt gives all the credit to his team.

"I'm really proud to be a part of this Lab and a part of this mission. I'm grateful to work with the folks we work with. I'm here because I want to make a difference."