The Data Chief

Already a name in Silicon Valley, DJ Patil ’96 brought a startup mindset to his public service under the Obama administration, when he was appointed the country’s first chief data scientist.
Already a name in Silicon Valley, DJ Patil ’96 brought a startup mindset to his public service under the Obama administration, when he was appointed the country’s first chief data scientist.

DJ Patil will be speaking on campus Thursday, June 8th as a part of our Alumni Weekend. More info here.

A lot of people took chances on DJ Patil ’96—from the UC San Diego admissions office who accepted his appeal to an initial rejection, to President Obama, who made him our country’s first-ever chief data scientist. And while these achievements bookend a career that includes a hotlist of Silicon Valley companies, Patil is quick to note that the most impact is yet to come, and will come from those we choose to take chances on as well.

On choosing UC San Diego:
I appealed to get into UCSD, and when you fight for it, and you realize what a privilege it is to be on that campus. I came in wanting to get the tools required to understand and study really, really hard concepts. And those concepts, most often, were rooted in things like chaos theory, and using chaos theory to understand the nature of how the world works and operates. Now, is that computer science? Is it physics? Is it math? It kind of requires all of it.

But the more powerful thing about UCSD is that majors aren’t tied to the college. So I could take anything and everything I could. Here I am a math person, a computer science person, a physics kind of person, and because I was at Warren I could take psychology and theater. You exercise skills that you never otherwise get to learn and you get to dabble so much. My approach was always: ‘take as many classes as you can.’ Because when else in life do you have such an opportunity to try things? That’s college—UCSD is permission to try.

On the lessons of Triton volleyball:
I have so many great moments from UCSD, but as far as volleyball, one of the drills we did was called “You the Man” and you’d be scrimmaging or doing a normal drill, and suddenly the coach would say “You the man!” and it was an instant set-up—everyone knew the ball was coming to you, and you had to make it happen. Everyone is stacked up against you, and if you don’t do it, it was kind of a big deal. It basically put you in the biggest pressure cooker possible. And I remember I had “You the man” happen to me one time, and it was all these starters on the other side [of the net] on defense, and the ball was coming to me. And it was one of those moments in which, you either climb the mountain or you fail. I can still can see it frame by frame in my mind, where I just got up there and I just crushed it. And everyone was just shocked—because this little shrimp kid isn’t supposed to do this against the starters!

These may seem like small things, but it changes your dynamics of what you believe is possible. And that can happen in multiple ways. Sometimes like in athletics, it’s a coach that helps you get there, sometimes it’s a professor, sometimes it’s your dorm-mates. But one thing I tell people is, “it’s amazing how fastidious we are about the type and quality of food we put into ourselves now as a society—organic this and that—but why aren’t we as fastidious about who we surround ourselves by and the ideas that they provide us? And what do we feed ourselves emotionally, intellectually, and mentally?” At UCSD, the people who I had access to in that way, was stunning. The professors, fellow classmates, and even the support staff—everyone helped fill my head and heart with new ideas.

I’m not saying that it’s easy. Quite the opposite. You have to put the time in. I remember being the first person in RIMAC in the morning to train. I remember those long walks in the eucalyptus groves because I bombed a math or physics quiz,. The long walk back to the dorms in Pepperwood Canyon, thinking, “Can I do this? I can’t believe I’m so far behind compared to these other people who are so good at this subject. How am I ever going to compete with them?” And you decide in that moment the same way—”You the man.” Do you get back up, or do you sit back down? And college does that! UCSD does that in some of the best ways possible, because it’s done in a safe way. It’s a safe, constructive way, and that’s something I always massively treasure.

On how his education carries forth:
One of the most important things that UCSD gave me, that I used in the White House, is an understanding of the Chicano and Latino community. Because some of my closest friends were from that community. Some of them had parents who were illegal immigrants, and I got to see that world and experience it in a way that was different.  And that experience was valuable to really know what we mean when we talk about “stats.” We put “stats” up there all the time, but we don’t label who those stats are. Is it Juan? Is it Giselle? Is it Sam? Is it Julie? We don’t put names next to them, so we don’t tell their stories. And so it’s very easy to be dismissive or say that it’s just a factoid.

But when you actually start to experience who that factoid represents—the people it represents, it changes your perspective. It changes the way you look at the world. It’s one of the reasons I’ll often say: people are always greater than data. You have to understand who is being impacted. Without people, data doesn’t mean much.

On his former role in the White House:
The mission of the Chief Data Scientist is to responsibly unleash the power of data to benefit all Americans and return on America’s investment on data. The two parts of that that are super carefully chosen are the word “responsibly” and “all Americans.” The “responsibly” is: just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. And as for the “all Americans,” we have this amazing technology, but most times you’ll find we’re really great at building technology and products for a narrow slice of society, and if you really want to build something powerful, build for everyone. Build for the local school system; build for the local shelter. In general, my simple rubric was: do what’s in the best interest for our kids and our kids’ kids. And if you do that, all the processes turn out to be pretty simple. There’s a lot of complexity in the nuances of it. But the answer’s actually pretty simple.

On empowering others:
I’ve come to the realization that I’m not going to be the person who’s actually going to solve a lot of these problems. But, what I can do is make it a hundred thousand times easier for the next person to come along to get to the next solution. If I spend all my energy breaking down obstacles and barriers, and removing the pain that someone—or a whole nation of people—have to work on something, they’ll figure it out.

After all, we’re the United States of America. We are the most powerful institution, government, and population that has ever existed, and when we have a problem and we put our full power as a nation to that problem, astonishing things happen. So what happens if we really empowered the next generation to solve cancer? Not just that we said it was important to solve cancer, but made it a paramount task of the United States of America. I think then we’ll see a radical difference, and that starts fundamentally at the places you see pivots in life—and that’s a college campus. That’s what a campus is about. It’s about the curation of unleashing the power. That’s one of the most influential places it can happen.

On what he’d like his fellow alumni to know:
We’ve all been gifted and blessed with the unbelievable opportunity to be part of this community. And we all got here because someone took a chance on us. That could have been the admission officer who decided ‘yes.’ It could have been a professor who gave you a nudge that helped you get something. It could have been some friend that helped pick you up when you had fallen down. It’s an amazing community we have as alumni, so what I would like them to know is, or more so, my ask of them is: who are you committing to take a chance on? Imagine if everyone took one little more effort like that. What type of force multiplier would all of be for our society?