The origins of the job title “data scientist”

Crunching the data.
Crunching the data.
Image: REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud
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Before he became the most powerful man in US data, DJ Patil was turned down by Google. He was turned down by Yahoo. Finally, he was hired by eBay because his mother knew someone there—and they didn’t know what to do with this young mathematics PhD from the University of Maryland with Defense Department experience.

So in May 2008, Patil moved to a slow-growing company called LinkedIn, which did appreciate his ability to sort through data and find clusters of pertinent, hidden information. He became its head of data products. In 2011, the company was to go public (in a stock sale that valued it at more than $9 billion on day one) and HR was complaining to Patil, according to Michael Lewis’s excellent and brief new book, The Fifth Risk, which chronicles what it was like to be inside government during the chaotic transition from the Obama to the Trump administrations.

LinkedIn’s human-resources department wanted to clean up the organizational chart. There were too many people with the word “data” in their titles and those that didn’t have the word relied on data anyway. Data analysts, business analysts, and so on. Patil asked a friend at Facebook what they should call what they did. “Data scientist,” his friend suggested. And like that, an entirely new field was born.

“We weren’t trying to create a new field or anything, just trying to get HR off our backs,” Patil told Lewis.

Patil said that applications for data-scientist jobs on LinkedIn shot up after they changed the job title; data nerds liked being called scientists. There are currently 23,749 results for “data scientist” in the US on the job pages of LinkedIn, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2016 for $26.2 billion in cash in no small part due to its efforts in using data to help people’s careers. In 2012, the Harvard Business Review called being a data scientist the sexiest job of the 21st century in an article co-written by Patil.

In 2014, Barack Obama asked to meet with Patil in Silicon Valley and the job title coined by his friend only a couple of years earlier was made as official as possible: Patil became the first—and so far, only ever—chief data scientist for the United States. Patil is now working at Devoted Health, a health-insurance startup.