Class of 2020: from one data scientist to another

dj patil
8 min readJun 18, 2020


This is my commencement speech to the inaugural graduating class of data scientists at Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, UC San Diego given on June 15, 2020 — “You’re the ones that will ensure that we all can breathe”

Hello class of 2020!

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your commencement. It is, truly, an honor, because you are graduating with a data science degree, and you are the inaugural graduating class of this new institute.

I’m sorry that we can’t be together in person. But, there are some positives. You didn’t have to get here hours earlier to find parking or try to guess how many layers to wear because of the infamous San Diego June gloom.

To start, I want you to take a moment and close your eyes. Now here’s the thing, because we’re online, I can’t tell if you’re closing your eyes. So seriously, CLOSE your eyes and take a deep breath in and out. Now, I want you to think of a moment on campus. Maybe it was walking through the eucalyptus groves, or maybe working late at night with friends on one of those infamous data projects.

Do you remember that first time you stepped foot on this campus? That moment when you bombed a test wondering if you belong? And then checking your grades at the end of the quarter to realize that you did make it? How about those long talks at night on meandering topics? Remember your favorite professor? Think about how much you knew when you arrived and how much you now know.

Keep your eyes closed and remember what it felt like. I remember my moments, the first time visiting the campus and wondering “what’s up with that library”. But more so, “do I belong here?” The first time meeting those that would become my best friends for life. Crying, laughing, and sometimes, both.

Got your favorite moment? Breathe that moment in. Savor it. Now open your eyes.

It’s amazing how much happened in these short few years. How much you’ve grown. And how you have helped each other to grow.

Now think about the people that helped make this possible. Hopefully, some of them are physically or digitally with you right now. Your parents, siblings, relatives, professors, mentors, teaching assistants, and your friends. If you have one of them next to you, tell them “thank you”. They’re the foundation of an incredible infrastructure that helped that favorite moment come true.

Seriously, look them in the eye and say, “thank you” and I hope you’ll notice how proud they are of you. Go on, I’ll wait.

Class of 2020 you made it! You’re the inaugural class of graduates from this incredible center here at UCSD. An institute that I wish I had around when I was your age. So, what advice can I tell you?

I want to start with a story. It’s the story of this card which has become popular in it’s own right and it’s the foundation of my advice to you Class of 2020.

This is the card that I kept in my notebook during my time in the White House as the U.S. Chief Data Scientist. I kept it in my notebook because it was a daily reminder of what was needed to do my job: to make the country a bit better each day.

The first part of the card is:

  • Dream in years
  • Plan in months
  • Evaluate in weeks
  • Ship daily

Ship daily means that we “deliver” something each day. Yet, we stay focused on vision and never forget to dream big.

The second part of the card is:

  • Prototype for 1x
  • Build for 10x
  • Engineer for 100x

This about how we build. Prototype for 1x means that we need to try lots of ideas. Some will work, most won’t. That’s ok, we’re trying to test ideas and iterate fast to figure out what the right solutions are.

Build for 10x is the next step once we’ve figured out what works. Our goal is to start scaling the idea to reach ten times the impact. And once we’ve figured out how to do that, we can move on to engineering the approach to 100 times the impact.

The third section is:

  • What’s required to cut the timeline in ½?
  • What needs to be done to double the impact?

This is about the need to go fast and ensure that we’re working on the highest priority items that deliver the greatest impact.

— —

What most people don’t know and I haven’t spoken about is how this card came to be. And since we’re not under a sweltering San Diego sun at a traditional graduation, I hope you’ll give me a few more minutes of your time.

After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the civil unrest that followed, we brought police chiefs, technologists, and activists from around the country together to the White House to spend a day to see if we could come up with actionable solutions.

As people made their way through security to the large room we were meeting in, groups formed. Uniforms huddled in one corner, suits in another, and of course, hoodies in another. And, you could feel the tension between groups. The mistrust was palpable. No eye contact, everyone was stiff, and there certainly wasn’t any mixing of the groups taking place.

It was my job to get them aligned to work on a set of solutions. And I was nervous. This was a fresh wound for the country, and I still hadn’t figured out what to say. So I sat in a corner and asked myself what would it take to “ship something today”? Something we could all align around. My hope was that if we just all rolled up our sleeves and got to work, something positive might happen. We just needed some guiding principles of how we build. How we build “together”.

So I wrote the card: dream in years, plan in months, evaluate in weeks, but always ship something daily. We should always go asleep at night knowing that we delivered something. Some days it will be something small, other days, it will be something big. But, always create something.

Prototype for 1x, build for 10x, and engineer for 100x. Let’s not be afraid to test ideas out. Let’s give ourselves permission to fail. Through trial and error we’ll figure it out together. Once we’ve got the idea, then let’s scale it from small groups to neighborhoods, cities, states, the country, and then the world!

It’s ok if our ideas won’t scale immediately. Building things is hard. And sometimes we have to go back to square one and try again.

And that’s why we need to ask, what’s required to cut the timeline in ½ and what needs to be done to double the impact?” This forces us to prioritize both making sure that we deliver the most impactful things and doing it fast.

Now, here’s the amazing thing that happened when I got to the lectern. When I told them our goal is to “ship something today”, the body language changed. Some were nervous, others were engaged, but the tension was gone. After all, there’s nothing like telling a group that President Obama is going to want to know what we shipped today in exchange for using one of his largest conference rooms.

We then broke the groups up so each team had at least one suit, one uniform, and of course, one hoodie and told them to get to work.

The results at the end of the day were stunning. The teams, on their own with no prodding, came up with the realization that they had no idea how well one police department compared with another. There just wasn’t enough data . And once they improved collecting the data, if they “opened up” data to the public, they could improve transparency and help identify problems. After all, you can’t fix what you can’t measure.

Together, the uniforms, suits, and hoodies, identified 101 data sets that the departments made a commitment to open up with help from one another. Together and as a new team, they laid the foundation for what became the Police Data Initiative and the Data-Driven Justice Initiative. And in less than two years, they supported police departments that cover more than 94 million Americans.

While that may seem impressive, here we are five years and one month later since that meeting; and, we’re still trying to argue that black lives matter.

Making change happen is hard. And that’s why all of you are so important.

The country needs you. The world needs you. I need you. We need you to use your skills in novel and phenomenal ways to help make change happen. It might be on criminal justice issues, finding a cure to COVID, addressing climate change, ensuring everyone has access to the healthcare they deserve, preserving our national security, or helping make sure everyone has a good meal to eat.

Security is like air, you know you only need it when you don’t have it. Class of 2020, you are the air for us. You’re the ones that will ensure that we all can breathe.

Thanks to this institution, you have the skills. Thanks to your friends and family, you have the heart. Now we need you to apply them together to make this world a better place for everyone.

So here’s my advice on how to make this happen as one data scientist to another.

First, remember, the data points have names. You have to say their names. That’s how we ensure that we’re using our skills responsibly.

Second, data science is a team sport. You already know this. Just think about one of those large data science projects. The first time you looked at it and thought, “how the heck are we going to do this”. And then, as a team, you did something remarkable. As the adage goes, “if you want to go fast go alone; if you want to go far, go together. You’re a team all bonded by this institution and these experiences. I’m proud to call all of you my data science teammates.

Finally, remember the advice in the card. Dream in years, plan in months, evaluate in weeks, and ship daily. Prototype for 1x, build for 10x, and engineer for 100x. And prioritize what’s needed to cut the timeline in half and how to double the impact.

Here’s the thing, you don’t have to follow my card, write your own card. Write the card that will carry you and your team forward in life. Don’t be afraid to throw away your card and write a new one. That’s a sign of success. A sign of growth.

Class of 2020, I am so proud of each and every one of you. And I know that you’re going to do amazing things. And so let me leave you with my favorite Ceaser Chavez quote, “together, all things are possible”.

Congratulations Class of 2020!

if you’d like a copy of the card, they are part of the public domain



dj patil

Making tech and data work for you