ESI Team

Taking Risks to Become Failure Proof at Princeton University

January 28, 2022
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What happens when risk is inherent in your business? On the third episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, Jay Dominick, Chief Information Officer at Princeton University discusses the paradigm shift required when stifling innovation is not an acceptable outcome, and risks need to be taken. He walks us through executing new operating procedures during COVID, the benefits of collaboration with startups, how the school has designed itself to be failure proof, and the unique set of stakeholders present at an institution like Princeton.

The beginning of COVID-19 posed a scenario fraught with considerable risk for any institution, and Princeton was no exception. Jay recalls an inflection point after the pandemic hit where “[Princeton] had to take risk to avoid failure.” Elaborating on that point, Jay describes sending the student and faculty populations home and into virtual environments with little to no warning. This meant all formally in-person activity now had to utilize little used cloud solutions to carry out day-to-day machinations. While ripe for failure, the cost of pausing and inaction during the early days of COVID-19 was arguably far greater than the risks of implementing new technology. Princeton was able to soldier on in the face of adversity by being unafraid to take risks at a time of great peril.

While COVID-19 presented a specific impetus for deploying new technologies, Jay’s broader point about balancing risk and reward calculations is applicable to nearly all high velocity arenas. In describing what an institution like Princeton benefits from when partnering with technologists and startups, Jay was crystal clear: “we work with startups to give our organization the opportunity to see people who are just thinking differently.” By getting a “sense into the innovator’s mind,” Princeton gets challenged to ask important questions about their own technology practices, a healthy exercise for them long term. Keeping an environment fertile for innovation and disruption allows for continued excellence and learning; a desirable outcome for any institution. 

Princeton’s ability to remain a preeminent institution of higher learning for 275 years has come in no small part due to their fearless approach to risk taking and not being afraid to fail. Having survived pandemics, depressions, wars, even a temporary occupation by British forces means the school has been adaptable in working itself through hard times. Maintaining an atmosphere of innovation while preventing failure during crises is central to Princeton’s mission. 

Being a CIO at a place like Princeton means juggling a range of different stakeholders’ requirements and inputs. As one of the premier research computing institutions in the United States, Princeton’s faculty is routinely using new, exciting technology in their work. The technology requirements for the research computing ecosystem are far different than the general student population. The unique circumstance Jay finds himself is best summed up here:”...if you're a CIO at a bank, you're not expecting your employees to constantly be hacking you, or trying to figure out how to create the next big app on your information infrastructure. So, we don't wanna stop that stuff because that's kind of the creativity in the space.” Jay helps the school strike a balance of these different constituencies, walking a tightrope between pushing forward on technological innovation and ensuring stability on a daily basis. Aligning the school’s interests with the innovators’ interests is top of mind for Jay so Princeton can continue excelling. 

Listen to Jay's episode here and read the transcript here