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Generation Flux: DJ Patil

Our profile of DJ Patil, Data Scientist at Greylock Partners. His career includes being a researcher at Los Alamos, a Defense Department fellow, a virtual librarian for Iraq, a web-security architect for eBay, and head of a data team at LinkedIn, where his team created “People You May Know.”

Generation Flux: DJ Patil

DJ Patil pulls a two-foot-long metal bar from his backpack. The contraption, which he calls a double pendulum, is hinged in the middle, so it can fold in on itself. Another hinge on one end is attached
to a clamp, which he secures to the edge of a table. “Now,” he says, holding the bar vertically,
from the top, “see if you can predict where this end will go.” Then he releases it, and the bar
begins to swing wildly, circling the spot where it is attached to the table, while also circling in
on itself. There is no pattern, no way to predict where it will end up. While it spins and twists,
with more velocity than I’d have imagined, Patil talks to me about chaos theory. “The important
insight,” he notes, “is identifying when things are chaotic and when they’re not.”

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In high school, Patil got kicked out of math class for being disruptive. He graduated only by
convincing a school administrator to change his failing grade in chemistry. He went to junior college
because his girlfriend was going, and signed up for a calculus class because she had. He took so
long doing his homework, his girlfriend would complain. “It’s not like I’m going to become a
mathematician,” he told her.

Patil, 37, is now an expert in chaos theory, among other mathematical disciplines. He has applied
computational science to help the Defense Department with threat assessment and bioweapons
containment; he worked for eBay on web security and payment fraud; he was chief scientist at
LinkedIn, before joining venture capital firm Greylock Partners. But Patil first made a name for
himself as a researcher on weather patterns at the University of Maryland: “There are some times,”
Patil explains, “when you can predict weather well for the next 15 days. Other times, you can only
really forecast a couple of days. Sometimes you can’t predict the next two hours.”

The business climate, it turns out, is a lot like the weather. And in recent years, predicting what
will happen next has gotten exponentially harder. Patil’s own life is a reflection of this reality.
He has worked in academia, in government, at big public companies, and at startups; he is a
technologist and a businessman; a teacher and a diplomat. He is none of those things and all of
them, and who knows what he will be or do next. Certainly not him. “That doesn’t bother me,” he
says. “I’ll find something.”

He recalls how he learned to master math: “I was always good with computers, fast at coding; I hacked
into my school’s grading system. But when I started taking calculus in junior college, I realized, I
don’t know any of this. I felt embarrassingly stupid. So I said, ‘Okay, I can either be stupid or I
can change.’ So I went to the Cupertino public library and took out all the high school math books I
could find, and I had to self-teach the basic principles. And I fell in love with it. It was so
different from other math classes I’d taken, because it explained why the world works. You could put
it into computer programs, and it would make it real.”

After two years at DeAnza Community College, Patil transferred to University of California at San
Diego. He still felt behind in math, certainly wasn’t at the top of his class in terms of grades,
but he helped professors with research–about how sand forms, and why the sardine population was
collapsing–and he graduated on schedule with a math degree. He considered oceanography as a
discipline, but chose instead to study under Jim Yorke, one of the pioneers of chaos theory, at the
University of Maryland.

For his research, Patil says, “I would take over the computers at night.” His research topic: “How
do you understand the nonlinear aspects of the weather? I had to clean and process so much data. I
would go to bed at 5 p.m. and get up at midnight, when the computers weren’t being used. It was hell.”

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Patil wanted a spot as a professor, but he knew he’d have to generate the funds to support his own
hiring. So he attacked grant writing, and in 2000 brought in about $1 million. “I created a job for
myself.” In 2004 he took a fellowship at the Department of Defense. “I went into government to help
my country, but I wasn’t going to enlist. But I was trained on public funds, at universities. I felt
I wanted to do some service. Plus I also knew it would get me exposure to how government works,
which would help me if I went back to academia or whatever happened.” At Defense, he worked on the
Threat Anticipation Project (which he still believes is years away from bearing practical fruit),
helped two other fellows build a virtual library for Iraq, and participated in a bioweapons prevention mission
to Kazakhstan.

He then asked himself: Do I go back to the lab or try something different? “I took three months off,
consulting, talking to people. I was intrigued by entrepreneurial places. I wondered if there was a
home for me in Silicon Valley.” (His father was a computer scientist who had helped found Cirrus
Logic.) He ended up at eBay, helping build web and security systems, and then met Reid Hoffman at a
board meeting for the University of California at Santa Cruz. The two hit it off, and Hoffman
convinced him that there was an opportunity at LinkedIn around data. “The data team needed to be a
product team,” Patil says. He became head of data products and chief scientist and chief security
officer at LinkedIn, and ended up coining the phrase “data scientist” to describe what he does.
After a brief, ill-fated stint at a startup called Color, he is now in residence at Hoffman’s
venture capital firm, Greylock, particularly exploring how data science can impact health care.

He recently wrote a treatise called “How To Build Data Science Teams: Professionals no longer
commit themselves to a single company for the bulk of their careers.” He could be describing
himself. He goes on: “With each new generation of professionals, the number of organizations and
even careers has increased. So rather than fight it, embrace the fact that people will leave, so
long as they leave to do something amazing. What I’m interested in is potential: If you have that
potential, we all win, and we all grow together, whether your success comes with my team or
somewhere else.”

“The silos that have traditionally separated data people from engineering, from design, and from
marketing, don’t work when you’re building data products. I would contend that it is questionable
whether those silos work for any kind of product development. But with data, it never works to have
a waterfall process, in which one group defines the product, another builds visual mockups, a data
scientist preps the data, and finally a set of engineers builds it to some specification document. “

“Each data product is a new experiment, and design is a critical part of that experiment. . . . To
develop this kind of product effectively, the ability to adapt and iterate quickly throughout the
product life cycle is essential.”

When he reflects on his career, Patil notes particular turning points. “I really thought I wanted to
be a consultant for a while,” he recalls. “I was interviewed at McKinsey, and halfway through, I
thought, ‘Oh my god, I can’t stand this.’ You don’t own anything, produce anything, you just advise.
It’s not for me.”

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“There are plenty of opportunities I didn’t walk into because there was no way to make a good
choice. At one point a lot of friends were going into finance, to hedge funds. It’s an area with a
lot of data. But I couldn’t understand it. How to play the game was too unpredictable for me.”

“My biggest mistake,” he says (referring to his abortive run at Color), “was not taking pause and
talking to as many people as I could. You need to do that due diligence.” But he also acknowledges
that mistakes–and serendipity–are part of life, chaotic though that may be.

“At the end of the day, you have two things: your energy and your intellectual curiosity,” Patil
says. “If you’re willing to apply them, try to add value to the world, the possibilities are so
endless.”

Generation Flux

The future of business is pure chaos. Here’s how you can survive–and perhaps even thrive.

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About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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