Techies should take a ‘tour of duty’ in government, says White House’s DJ Patil

After Salesforce bought his company RelateIQ in 2014, DJ Patil was invited to work at the White House, serving as the country’s first-ever chief data scientist. He says it took him longer to accept the job offer than it should have, crediting his wife with convincing him to “throw [his] hat into the ring.”

“The thing she saw that I couldn’t see is, we always love to talk about the ‘mission’ of our companies,” Patil said on the latest Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “But when you’re in these roles, you don’t worry about stock options. It’s just the mission.”

Since joining the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in early 2015, Patil has pushed policies to make data more broadly accessible and usable, both within the government and by private citizens. His specific projects have included the Precision Medicine Initiative, working with the NIH to advance personalized medicine, and the Police Data Initiative, which aims to improve policing and rebuild trust in local communities.

Patil said he wants other techies in the private sector to do follow his example, regardless of who moves in after Barack Obama leaves.

“The agencies and career staff have wanted to do this for a long time,” he said. “They’ve been saying, ‘Where have you guys been? Why haven’t you unleashed us, to let us do this?’ Now that they have the runway and the mandate, they’re going to maximize that opportunity.”

“If we just say, ‘we tried’ and disengage, we lose,” Patil added. “This only works if we have a model where we are continuing to serve, not by providing advice only, but by literally, taking a pause from here [Silicon Valley], stepping into the world and taking a tour of duty.”

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