Meet Microsoft’s master of high-tech showmanship
Ryan Asdourian arrives at the front entrance to Century Link Field dressed in jeans, a lavender dress shirt and a tailored jacket, the kind of dapper that seems one glance at a wristwatch shy of being a Gucci ad.
He’s carrying a navy blue duffel bag that looks massive enough to carry a baby rhinoceros, or maybe $10 million in unmarked bills.
“How long does it take you to change?” I ask.
“Seven minutes,” Asdourian says, heading for the stadium’s VIP entrance. Seven minutes later, the same door opens and out walks a heavily muscled bird of prey in a football uniform. It’s Blitz, the Seattle Seahawks’ mascot.
Any true Seahawks fan is familiar with the term Beast Mode, a nickname for star running back Marshawn Lynch’s way of charging down the field, opponents bouncing off him left and right.
Then there’s Blitz Mode, where Asdourian enters a wholly different zone. In Blitz Mode, Asdourian goes from a sparkling conversationalist to a silent bird whose communicative currency includes a large catalog of exaggerated gestures, dance moves, high-fives, thumbs ups, raise the roofs and so forth. Blitz is the same high-energy, outgoing bird whether he’s hanging out with six people or 68,338 people (which he did during a recent attendance-record-setting Seahawks home game).
He waves to a woman passing on a bicycle. He flashes a set of No. 1 fingers at a family looking for the entrance to the auto show. Across the street, a group of construction workers is sawing through a sidewalk. One hard-hatted man spots Blitz and comes over to see what’s going on with Seattle’s most famous bird.
“I hadn’t noticed what a nice tail you have,” I say to Blitz.
Blitz turns and lifts his blue and green tail, giving it a flick and then a flirty wiggle.
It was more than a decade ago that Asdourian, then a computer science student at the University of Florida (and yes, also the college’s mascot, Albert the Alligator), set his sights on Microsoft at a career fair. After two internships, Asdourian was hired full-time in 2004. He worked a few engineering jobs, including a stint as a software tester in Office and a search media strategist for MSN, before switching gears entirely to work in marketing for the Windows Competitive Strategy team.
Having strong marketing skills combined with an engineering background is powerful at a company like Microsoft, he says.
“Every different job I’ve had bubbles up towards broader reach and scope,” Asdourian says. “Combining marketing and engineering has been critical for my success.”
Nearly a year ago, Asdourian took a job working with Steve Guggenheimer, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Developer & Platform Evangelism group. There, Asdourian works to make sure Microsoft has great apps on the Windows platform.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Asdourian has also found a niche in tech showmanship, giving high-profile demonstrations of Microsoft’s software, services and devices from Office to Surface. He presented at the Microsoft Company meeting at KeyArena, at the company’s Annual Meeting of Shareholders, and he even shared a stage with CEO Steve Ballmer at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas.
Asdourian said being asked to present with Ballmer three years ago, his first major demo, was an honor. He spent weeks preparing for the keynote. So what was it like to spend 20 minutes showing off Microsoft’s best with none other than its CEO?
Asdourian pauses. “I believe that every great demonstrator has to go through the gauntlet of failure.”
His came when the power went off 15 minutes before the demo started. Everyone scrambled to get the machines back online, but there wasn’t time for a test run to make sure the computers and devices were ready.
“We went for it,” Asdourian says. “As I was doing the demo, one of the machines was not configured properly. Then they took my notes away to tell me that the next demo wasn’t working, and that was the last thing I was supposed to do before Steve took over to announce Media Center 2.0. All this stuff was running through my mind while I was presenting to 4,000 people live, and I didn’t really know how to throw it to him, so I ended up announcing it.”
These are Steve Ballmer’s lines, he thought, even as the words were coming out of his mouth.
“He’s a super sharp guy, so he realized immediately what I was doing and took over from there,” Asdourian said.
Asdourian thought he’d failed miserably, and couldn’t bring himself to watch the video for a while. When he finally did, his “gauntlet of failure” wasn’t actually so bad.
“That was the first place I got the whole bug about being on stage, doing things in front of a big audience,” Asdourian says. “It was a really cool experience. Really intense.”
Asdourian has found a niche in tech showmanship, giving high-profile demonstrations of Microsoft’s software, services and devices from Office to Surface.
That was three years ago, and since he’s traveled the world giving Microsoft demos. Asdourian’s worlds collided a couple of years ago when he ran into Ballmer and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen on the field at a Seahawks game.
“Steve sees me and goes, ‘Paul, do you know who this is?’ and Paul looks at me like, ‘Of course I don’t, it’s a bird,’” Asdourian recalls.
That bird works in Windows, Ballmer told Allen. Then the three of them – Blitz, Ballmer, and Allen – shared a laugh right there on the sidelines. A Reuters photographer captured the scene.
Asdourian concedes that his journey from two-time intern to engineer to Demo Master is not necessarily the norm. Still, he hopes his future at Microsoft will continue to meld leadership and showmanship.
“I’d be excited to do this for the next 9 years. I’m super enthusiastic about the whole thing, and I feel like I’ve had a really blessed and lucky career,” Asdourian says. “I don’t know precisely where I’ll end up – I just don’t want to stop learning and growing.”
One of the first rules of being a mascot is generally to not reveal that you’re a mascot. Asdourian subscribes to this. It’s clear he likes to maintain a comfortable distance between man and bird.
“I typically don’t tell anyone I’m Blitz unless there’s a good reason,” Asdourian says.
Five years ago came a very good reason.
That was when Asdourian started noticing a tingling sensation in his legs. It didn’t go away, so he went to the doctor. After a series of tests over the course of a month, he’d been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
“I was pretty lucky – that’s extremely short compared to most, who have to wait many months and even years because the symptoms are so varied,” Asdourian said. “Because I’m in the Northwest, which has a high prevalence of MS, there’s more of an affinity to test you for it. Elsewhere, they’ll often think it’s something else before they go to MS.”
After hearing from his doctor, Asdourian’s mind was a blur. For nine months, he told very few people – family and a few close friends.
“Someone told me something once that stuck with me, to think about how you tell people, because when you decide to tell people you can never take that back,” he said. “I thought about it for a long time.”
While he was thinking about what to do with the news, Asdourian quietly learned to manage his new reality, which includes giving himself a shot multiple times a week (a beta blocker), “flare-ups” (random pains in his hands or legs, shifting balance, slurring speech), and getting periodic MRIs to make sure he has no new or growing lesions (permanent dead spots in the brain caused by MS, for which there is currently no cure).
“A flare up is when your immune system sees this lesion in your brain and thinks it needs to fight it. It can’t really fight it, but it tries, making your immune system attack your own body,” Asdourian says. “So sometimes my leg will get tingly or hurt. It’s crazy because I know nothing’s actually wrong with my leg, even if I limp or have pain. It’s kind of a bit of a mind trap where your brain is telling you this hurts, or that doesn’t feel right.”
After much consideration, Asdourian decided to act. With the Seahawks blessing, he and Blitz were going to raise awareness and money for MS.
“I wrote a letter letting people know I’d been diagnosed. I sent it to 300 people at the time, none of which had any clue, and it just went viral,” Asdourian said. “All of these people started donating, joining the cause, and I started telling my story on radio shows and TV.”
He founded the Team Blitz Pub Crawl (which last year sported 450 participants and raised $23,000). He also formed a team to participate in the annual MS Walk in Seattle (last year his team raised $80,000). Ryan also sits on the board for the Greater NW chapter of the MS Society.
Two years ago, a handful of his fellow NFL mascots traveled to Seattle to walk with Asdourian and his team. This year he’s trying to get all of the NFL’s some 26 mascots to attend.
Wait, the NFL mascots know each other? Is there some secret mascot clubhouse?
“There is, and I set it up actually,” Asdourian says. “We all communicate through email.”
They talk about secret stuff, he says. Tricks of the trade. “Mainly we make fun of each other.”
When he’s not at work, or in Blitz Mode, or raising money for the MS Society, Asdourian loves spending time with his tightknit family.
When he was diagnosed, his brother (and best friend) Ross moved from New York City to Seattle almost immediately.
“He lived on my couch for a year. He never was like, ‘Hey, it’s because you have MS.’ It was an unspoken thing,” Asdourian says. “My parents moved to Seattle from Florida as well a couple of years ago. My family freaked out probably more than I did.”
He got married last year, and he and his wife Lucy love to travel the world together, spend time outdoors snowboarding and golfing, and let’s be honest – with a life that packed, they particularly love a quiet movie night at home.
“My family is super important to me,” Asdourian says.
His parents, brother, and Lucy provide the ultimate support system for Asdourian, the increasingly high-profile Microsoft employee Asdourian – and for his rather famous counterpart, Blitz.
“I’m the best kind of famous,” he says. “Once the Blitz head is off, no one knows who I am.”
Editor’s note: Shortly after we profiled Ryan Asdourian in the fall of 2013, he transitioned to a new role advising Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on emerging technologies.
For more information on Ryan’s MS fundraising efforts, to donate or learn more go to http://www.blitztacklesms.comPhotos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft