Energy Transition Institute Advisory Board Spotlight: Darryl Willis, Microsoft

By Ed Bailey

Microsoft’s Darryl Willis has built an extraordinary career bringing together science, energy, technology, passion and innovation.

He started as an exploration geophysicist at bp and rose through the ranks during his 28-year-career at the oil and gas giant. Eventually, the tech industry came calling in the form of Google, where he led efforts to discover new solutions for the marketplace.

Now the corporate vice president of energy and resources industry at Microsoft, Willis and his team are focused on bridging the gap between tech and industry, citing digitalization as one of the central pieces of the energy transition.

“I would say it has been interesting, fortuitous and challenging all at the same time. I wish I could tell you I had a master plan, but it’s mostly been just me following things that are interesting and impactful,” Willis said.

As one of the members of the University of Houston’s Energy Transition Institute (ETI) Advisory Board, the New Orleans native brings his extensive industry knowledge, perspective on digitalization’s role in the energy transition and urgency to the table as the institute readies to lead the future of energy.

Citing Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s aspirations for Houston to lead the energy transition, as well as UH’s place as the intellectual engine of the Bayou City, it did not take long for Willis to accept a spot on the team and the challenge that comes with it.

“Though I’m from New Orleans, Houston is my second home. Additionally, I’ve been really impressed with Mayor Turner and his ambition to help Houston go from being the Energy Capital of the World to being the Energy Transition Capital of the World,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot to make that happen. I believe Houston can do it. I believe that transformational development for energy and the energy transition will be facilitated by the University of Houston’s involvement. I have a lot of hope and belief that UH will help accelerate anything we do in Houston around the energy transition.”

Willis, supported by a highly diverse group of peers on the board, openly acknowledged the challenging path ahead. This is because the plan involves attempting something unprecedented. In his view, the energy sector tends to favor a more methodical problem-solving approach, but industry needs to pick up the pace without forgetting the need for partnerships and steady progress to achieve net zero by 2050.

“There’s an urgency around the energy transition that has to be appreciated and addressed. This sector has to move at a faster velocity,” Willis said. “Because I’m a scientist, I think in terms of scientific measures. Velocity entails distance, speed and direction. I think the direction is clear, but the speed is not where it needs to be, and we must try and move faster.”

He also stressed the need for partnerships and steady progress to achieve net zero by 2050. “Every company has its own decarbonization ambitions but we all need to work together to meet both individual company and collective societal goals or it won’t work. We won’t get there without partnership between all companies, whether that’s power, renewables, tech, startups or fossil fuels. And we must stay the course,” Willis added. “Many companies have set net zero targets and are challenging themselves on how to get there, but it’s also important to set intermediate targets to assess progress in reaching the end goal and adjust as needed.”

Another important question that must be addressed is how can society achieve net zero. While there is enough of a foundation to begin the work, Willis admits that part of the solution requires innovative methods that haven’t been formulated yet. The other side of the equation also involves adequate investment.

“The stuff we already know how to do will probably get us halfway there, but the things that will get us from that point to net zero will have to be reimagined in some cases,” he said. “I think partnerships with universities and industry along with investment of money, resources and time will help drive the intellectual progress that’s required. It’s going to take time and focus. Sometimes, you can be chasing too many things and if you do that, you won’t get anything done.”

With this in mind, Willis is ready to get to work on helping guide the ETI’s vision for the Energy Capital of the World that is evolving to the Energy Transition Capital of the World. That vision also involves the future workforce. To that end, Willis offers a few pieces of his blueprint for making an impact within industry and beyond. This three-pronged approach hinges on working for the greater good, following your passions, and manifesting reality.

“If you’re doing something you love and are passionate about, the success and resources will follow. Secondly, always think about how you can benefit someone other than yourself, and that’s a big piece of what I do,” he said. “You need an operating rhythm and framework for what you want for your career and frankly, your life. Anything you want personally or professionally, create some sort of vision for it. There’s something powerful about visualization and writing down what you want to do. Looking back on my career, every time I’ve written something down, 80 percent of the time it has become a reality.”