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Meet DJ Patil: Obama’s Big Data dude

Meet DJ Patil Obama s Big Data dude


DJ Patil is still settling into his White House office. It’s by far the most prestigious place he’s ever worked, but it looks more like a bootstrapping startup than a precinct of Washington power. His desk is tidy, and on top of his overflowing bookshelf sits a watchful Pokémon Pikachu doll, adding a touch of whimsy to the otherwise drab, government-issue office. Propped up against the wall is his bamboo longboard (a hybrid trickboard with a school of fish painted on the underbelly). The skateboard is more than just an emblem, a reminder of his days as a Silicon Valley technologist when he sometimes zipped across the campuses of LinkedIn and eBay. It’s how he gets to work on nice days, hurtling down the streets of downtown D.C., weaving around potholes, tourists and protesters as he feels the breeze in his dark brown hair, before slipping behind the security gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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His official job title is chief data scientist and deputy chief technology officer for data policy.Unofficially, he is responsible for nothing short of harnessing the extraordinary power of the federal government’s hundreds of thousands of data sets. 

How much data is that, exactly?

The scope of the government’s collection is so staggering that no one really knows. Thanks to the explosive use of affordable mobile electronics in the 21st century, data proliferates in such a frenzy that researchers estimate over 4 zettabytes of it exists in the world. To put that in context, if 1 byte equaled a character of text, the 1,250-page tome War and Peace would fit into a zettabyte about 323 trillion times. The U.S. is the largest collector in the Northern Hemisphere. And Patil’s job is to be both the wielder and the protector of that data, to unlock its vast potential for progress while guarding against risk of government abuse.

I like this story.

Nevertheless, by the time Patil graduated from high school in the spring of 1992, his high jinks and poor SAT scores had put him at the bottom of his class. He received a pile of thin envelopes — rejection letters from every college he wanted to attend. He cried, and now recalls it as a “soul-crushing” experience. 

At the encouragement of his father, however, he pushed on. First he appealed his rejection from the University of California. At the same time, he followed his girlfriend to De Anza Community College, enrolling in the same classes she did. On the first day of their calculus course, he listened intently to the professor’s lecture but understood nothing. 

DJ Patil high school yearbook photo ImgurDJ Patil in high school. (Photo: Courtesy DJ Patil)

“It was this kind of moment when you realize: ‘Oh, my gosh, I am that stupid,’” he said. “I had a choice: Either get with the program or you’re not going to be able to understand these concepts that you’ve been passionate about.” 

Deeply embarrassed, he went to the Cupertino library, checked out every single high school math book he could get his hands on and — in a scene straight from Isaac Newton’s biography — taught himself math. After years of feeling clueless in the classroom, he finally found that the core mathematical concepts that had always fascinated him seemed to stick. It was a humbling moment for Patil, but also, as he recalls it, “really fun.” Meanwhile, much to his surprise, his appeal to get into college worked, and in 1993 he transferred to the University of California, San Diego, majoring in mathematics.

Reid Hoffman recruited Patil to join LinkedIn in 2008.

Patil assembled a team of sharp data scientists, focusing their efforts on missed opportunities within an individual’s browsing experience. Once they identified a weak point, they’d use data to offer a personalized fix. 

“What we realized is data, when used responsibly, is a force multiplier,” Patil said. 

Patil and his team approached its projects organically, bouncing around ideas, moving quickly to test them and quickly throwing out what flopped. The result was the creation of well-known tools like Who’s Viewed My Profile, Jobs You Might Be Interested In and visualizations of a person’s professional network called InMaps. In each new feature, Patil drove home the idea that the best sign of a good data product is no obvious evidence of the data itself.

“The user doesn’t want to see raw data, they want the data in a usable form, and that usable form should help them do something more creative, be more efficient, give them superpowers,” he said. “Something you could never conceive of before.” 

To Patil, it was just plain logic that regular people didn’t want a bunch of statistical noise getting in the way of their online experience. But in a profession filled with statisticians and programmers, his rare eye for the bigger picture set him apart. 

Coining a profession

Around the same time, Jeff Hammerbacher was developing similarly personalized data products for Facebook. And in 2008, he and Patil separately began using the term “data scientist” when hiring employees. In 2012, Patil co-authored a Harvard Business Review article with academic Thomas Davenport titled “Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century.” The piece, intended as a way to recruit talent to LinkedIn, argued that most data-collecting entities could benefit from having a data scientist to make sense of it all.

Uh, did he say "sexiest"?

DJ and his skateboard in the White House:

DJ Patil skateboard White House meme Imgur Obama Big Data dudd

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