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How Being a Standup Comedian Taught Me How to Be a Great Product Manager

Episode 70

How Being a Standup Comedian Taught Me How to Be a Great Product Manager, with Deepak Paramanand, Product Lead at Hitachi Europe

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Meet Guest: Deepak Paramanand

 

Deepak Paramanand’s Guest Bio is coming soon!

Listen to Masters of Product Management Podcast Episode 070

Read the Transcription

[00:00:06]  JJ: Hello, this is JJ Rorie, vice president at Sequent Learning Networks. In our Masters of Product Management podcast, we tap into the experiences of people who work in and around product management to help you learn and grow in your product management career. So many product managers begin their careers in other functions—engineering, sales, finance, et cetera—and then end up in a product management role at some point throughout their career progress. That’s certainly my story, and most others that I know have a similar path. And I’m often asked if there’s a path that is more suited to product management. My answer is usually that you can learn from anything. You can learn something from every role, every experience, regardless of what industry or what function you’re in. And most importantly, bring those learnings into a product manager role. There really isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, a traditional path into product management. Now, today’s conversation takes that idea, but with an even greater spin. I’m really looking forward to this. Deepak Paramanand is a product lead at Hitachi, where he is looking to infuse A.I. Inside and outside of trains. But that’s just half the story. Deepak, tell us a little bit more about yourself. 

[00:01:39] Deepak: Hello, JJ. Thank you for having me on the podcast! 

[00:01:42] JJ: Yeah, I’m excited to talk to you. 

[00:01:44] Deepak: Lovely. And no, you did not get the name too wrong. 

[00:01:49] JJ: Ah, a little bit wrong. Sorry!

[00:01:49] Deepak: So you actually did a very good job with saying it right!

[00:01:58] JJ: Oh, good. 

[00:01:58] Deepak: So, yeah, it’s good to be on this podcast, but we’re not going to talk about A.I.—which may be sad for a few people—but go to some other podcast, or a few after this one. Today I’m going to talk about an aspect of my life that I didn’t know would turn out this way: I’m going to be talking about standup comedy—how I learned my ropes in standup comedy, and how it’s helping me become a good product manager today. And I’m going to be sharing my experiences, my story of how I got into it, what did I learn from it, and how do I see the world today? So again, JJ, thank you for having me on this podcast. Happy to be talking to you and sharing my thoughts with your listeners. 

[00:02:46] JJ: Awesome. Thank you. Okay, so tell me a little bit more about your story. You and I have talked, and one of the things that you’ve mentioned to me is that failure has been a good thing for you. And, of course, being a standup comedian has taught you things about being a great product manager. So, tell us more. Let’s dig into that. What do you mean by that? 

[00:03:10] Deepak: So, to tell a little bit of backstory, because I think this is important as to why I was even fascinated by this. So this is 2009, November, the only time that happened in India. I was hoping to be a Ted fellow—”Ted fellow,” by the way, is the coolest thing in the world. Back then, you could change the world, and I’d applied to become a fellow. Clearly, my story would go on to depict this part: failure. I wasn’t allowed to become a fellow; but they did say, “Well, come on in and work for us,” which I did. And then I got to see that, up close, they got through to the speakers as humans. They had first names, last names, they drank water, they ate food, they walked, they wore clothes. Just amazing human stuff. All great, amazing people there. But what people don’t see is, at the end of that, a “Ted” person walks up on stage and makes fun of every single person. So you might have saved the lives of millions of people, you might have raised millions of dollars of money, but you will be made fun of at the end. And he dedicates close to two minutes to everybody. 

[00:04:21] Deepak: And the speakers actually don’t mind it. They actually like it. To them, what he’s doing is, he’s humanizing them. And they understand the importance of being humanized—because once you find these amazing people, you sort of idealize them and you feel that inspiration is beyond you. And that, for the first time, was my introduction to standup comedy. I had never seen anybody do that. I was myself surprised how much I laughed, and how much the speakers he made fun of laughed at their own jokes, at their own expense. And that, to me, open the eyes of, if I can make myself relatable—you know, I can understand people’s problems, connect with them—I’ll get a response back. So that was the inspiration. And, inspired by that day, I wrote an entire one-hour set that goes to about 30 jokes. I’d memorized them, and then went in front of an audience…and I bombed. And. I. Bombed. Oh my god, it was so miserable. 

[00:05:24] JJ: Oh no! 

[00:05:25] Deepak: It was so miserable. I don’t know how these poor people sat through forty-five minutes of my standup comedy, but they were brave. Possibly, they have never seen anything before. But they were very, very curious to see why the strange man wearing glasses was trying so hard to convince them to laugh at jokes he made. Poor people just sat through that. And that, to me, was the first time I had experienced a big problem that I would go to face in my future life, which was: I was not thinking about my audience’s problems. I was not thinking about my customers’ problems. And that went on to have a large impact in my life. And clearly, when I was bombing then, the two magic words “product management” were not part of my curriculum; not part of my vocabulary. I was trying very hard not to bomb. Clearly, I was not thinking of becoming a product manager back then. But then, the lessons in failure taught me quite a bit about product management. And I owe quite a lot of my success today, to that day, and to the learnings I’ve had since. 

[00:06:34] JJ: That’s fascinating. First of all, I love that little tidbit about Ted. I didn’t realize that the speakers got made fun of! And I love what you said about humanizing them, because there’s such a parallel, in my opinion, to that in customers. I think that sometimes what we, as product managers, do—and frankly, any business person does—is we almost canonize our customers and we think of them as, “The customer’s king, and they can do no wrong,” and that sort of thing. And anything we can do to humanize them and realize that they’re just like us; they’re business people like us. They have issues. They have priorities, et cetera. And if we can somehow get to that aspect of them, then we can help ourselves understand them, and then hopefully solve their problems; build better products for them. So, that’s very interesting. 

[00:07:31] Deepak: Yeah. And that day, Hans Rosling spoke—Hans Rosling, the famous person who makes numbers and graphs animate. He made fun of him! 

[00:07:42] JJ: Oh  wow! 

[00:07:42] Deepak: He has a big laugh. I mean, that man can laugh, right? He laughed—I think he laughed more on the joke made on him than the joke he made on somebody else. 

[00:07:53] JJ: That’s fabulous. 

[00:07:53] Deepak: And that was powerful because Hans Rosling is able to take himself lightly. I think there’s something to be said about the world. I can’t emphasize the fact more: the more you humanize your customers and the people you want to serve, the better you are able to think about them, and the better problems-based definition you have for yourself. 

[00:08:15] JJ: Yeah. So, let’s dig a little bit more into customers, customer needs; that sort of thing. I love how your part of the story—you bombed in the beginning, unfortunately for you, but you started to learn how finding jokes that will land with your audience is, in many ways, like finding customer needs. 

[00:08:38] Deepak: Yeah. 

[00:08:38] JJ: Let’s talk about that. Tell me a little bit more about that. 

[00:08:41] Deepak: Yeah, absolutely. See, when you’re the new comedian, what you do is you write jokes. You write the best jokes. You test it on two people: one person is in the mirror. And because the other person laughs, you think you have the best joke in the world, because you’ve written the joke and rehearsed it. You have the intonation, and you have the sound of everything right. And then you go on stage and you bomb. And the first lesson you learn is: you’re not the center of the universe. I know that’s shocking to so many people; but the fact that my jokes are not funny to other people besides me, is just very brutal. So that’s Lesson Number One. Lesson Number Two is to say, “Well, I wrote the joke. I put the effort into it. I am the bravest and smartest person in the room because I am standing on stage. I am telling jokes; whereas everybody else is now just sitting there taking no risks. How dare they not laugh at my jokes? How dare they not respect me and bow down to my awesomeness?” So the second lesson you learn is: “I, me, my” doesn’t work. 

[00:09:48] Deepak: Again, you’re not the center of the universe. And that leads to a fundamental learning for me, which was, the more you are about yourself, about your hypothesis and about your need for validation, the worse off you are. So over a long period of time, the less I became “I”—I want to be funny, my jokes should work—in framing that question around to say, “Well, what do my audiences want? What are they looking to laugh at? What should I make them laugh about?” So the more I made it about them and less about me—I know, again, a very shocking revelation for anybody who has not heard this before—the funnier I got. So I looked at people in the audience not as men and women. They were men and women; but the more I sat in the problem space—here I’m using the first product management definition! So the more I looked at them, not as men and women—more, I would look at them as mothers and fathers and secretaries who have problems—the more I began to relate to them. So the question now became not so much, “I want to be funny.” The question now became, “How do I make them laugh?” And the more I progressed in that space, the funnier I got.

[00:11:17] Deepak: And I now come to the second thing that I learned there, which was personas. Because the more I looked at them as men and women, I couldn’t find common ground. The more I looked at them as mothers and fathers and teachers and secretaries and bosses, the more pains I found. Let me correct that—bosses don’t have pains, JJ. Bosses are just awesome people. They have money. They don’t have problems, remember? 

[00:11:43] JJ: Exactly. 

[00:11:43] Deepak: I stand corrected. Anybody else other than bosses have problems. 

[00:11:48] JJ: That’s right. 

[00:11:50] Deepak: So the more I look at them that way—oh, so what is the secretary mad about? What’s the wife mad about? What’s the husband annoyed for? What makes the driver go mad? What’s the Uber driver mad about? What’s the mailman angry about? So, the more I personified, the more I humanized, the more I was able to understand the problem space. And the more I understood the problem space—you’ll find it shocking, but even if you state the most obvious pain somebody has in the audience, you’ll get heads nodding. And the more you’re able to have a perspective that they already know of—but they couldn’t voice their own thoughts—just restating the problem back to them gives you acknowledgment and gives you the pathway to be funny. 

[00:12:33] Deepak: So the first step is, doing Masters of Product Management, look at the customers not as customers, because that’s too vague. Look at them as personas. And when we look at personas, look at their problems. Even the fact that you acknowledge the problem they have gives you validation. And after that comes addressing their problems. So if I have a funny take for a secretary, or a funny solution for a secretary, people would laugh. If I have a funny take on marriage, if I have a funny take on being a father or a mother, just the acknowledgment gives me validation. But if I had a funny angle on it, that gave me the humor; that gave me an opportunity to get the laugh. So, again, the first rule was keeping my views and my hypotheses away, and trying to remain in the problem space and trying to understand the customer. That helped me quite a bit in my journey. 

[00:13:27] JJ: You’re spot-on. I’m thinking about myself, right, and thinking about what I find funny. And we all find something that’s relatable, funny, right? You can think of the silliest or the most simple thing, but if it—the audience says, “Yes, yes, that happens in my life. That’s so funny!” That’s how we get laughs. And I’ve never thought about it before. So that’s fascinating that you’ve learned that. 

[00:13:55] Deepak: I found out later on that the southern guy called Steve Jobs built the whole company by saying, “Remain in the problem space.” I mean, only if you had talked to me before I bombed, sir, I would have not bombed. 

[00:14:08] JJ: I know. I can’t believe Steve Jobs didn’t reach out to you! 

[00:14:10] Deepak: Just a very selfish thing. You’re building the Apple iPod and the iPhone. And I was bombing in India. No care whatsoever. 

[00:14:19] JJ: None. 

[00:14:19] Deepak: He didn’t even say in the book, “This could be applied to standup comedians as well.” Not at all. I mean, how short-sighted could that be? 

[00:14:27] JJ: But, you know, we know the real Steve Jobs. The world doesn’t quite understand. 

[00:14:33] Deepak: Exactly. So again, this is not new wisdom. But to me, I think the insight also is that— how many people we know learn everything they need to learn by reading, or by just writing? I mean, when I think of a joke and I write a joke down, I’m very funny. But when the rubber meets the road, and when I see the audience laughing and responding, that’s when I know my joke is actually landing. So here comes now my third learning, which is: you learn so much more by doing, than by thinking and planning and reading and writing and all the other “ings.” So the do-ing is better than all the other “ings” you have. The more I go out there, the more I’m able to tell the jokes and test the material, it works. So let me tr material now; see how this lands with you. 

[00:15:27] JJ: Okay. 

[00:15:28] Deepak: Now, would you believe me if I told you Donald Trump and me have three things in common? 

[00:15:37] JJ: No, I probably wouldn’t. 

[00:15:39] Deepak: Well, here it goes. The first common thing is: we both don’t smoke. 

[00:15:46] JJ: Okay. 

[00:15:47] Deepak: Second common thing is: we both don’t drink. 

[00:15:51] JJ: Okay. 

[00:15:51] Deepak: And the third common thing is: we both don’t lie to our wives. 

[00:15:57] JJ: You both don’t like what? 

[00:15:57] Deepak: We don’t lie to our wives. 

[00:16:01] JJ: Oh, you don’t lie to your wives, okay! 

[00:16:04] Deepak: The only catch is I’m not like the one wife and he’s not like two, three. 

[00:16:11] JJ: Okay, Deepak. Yeah. [laughs]

[00:16:12] Deepak: So this joke lands with you; it doesn’t mean it lands with everybody. And this joke I used to give an idea that I’m testing this material. In my head, the joke was funny. I didn’t tell you this before, but I tested the joke; this joke landed with you. You laughed, you responded, and you find it funny. But there is about 10 percent of the time the joke doesn’t land. So what do I learn from it? What I learn from it is, usually what the problem is—we don’t understand the context. So, to give an example: I tried this joke in India, to somebody who doesn’t even know who Donald Trump is. Guess how well that went.

[00:16:53] JJ: Not well. 

[00:16:53] Deepak: Exactly. 

[00:16:55] JJ: I love that. They might be happier than some of the rest of us. 

[00:16:58] Deepak: Well, that’s a whole different ball game. 

[00:17:03] JJ: I didn’t say that. 

[00:17:03] Deepak: But the learning curve was: context is important. Even if I have the persona right, even if I have the understanding of the problem space right—without the right context, I cannot go and pitch a solution. I cannot go pitch a product idea. So again, the learning curve was: I must understand the context very well, or I must understand the constraints very well. Because the constraint here was that, that person I told the joke to didn’t even know who Donald Trump was. So if I don’t understand the customer, if I don’t understand the constraint, if I don’t understand the challenges, how can I even make the assumption that I understand the problem space? Good luck even offering a solution to them. So that was my next learning, in time: to pitch my joke, make it relevant to them, explain the context really well. So, now what do I do? I don’t go tell it to people, who live in the villages in India, about Donald Trump, because they don’t know about him. 

[00:17:57] JJ: Right. 

[00:17:57] Deepak: So I only want to tell people who know about him, and then who possibly understand the reference. Then, it’s in a lighter way—again, I’m trying to humanize them. I’m trying to humanize it and make it available to you and me; and then hopefully, there is laughter at the end. 

[00:18:13] JJ: Yep. So, this is interesting. You’re fascinating to me, and I love that you actually have gotten up and done all these open mics—something I would never do, to be completely honest. And I would venture to guess that a lot of people listening right now, say, “This is all great, Deepak, but there’s no way in heck I’m ever going to get up and do an open mic night.” So what do you think are some other ways, or some things that we can take to improve our product management game, without putting ourselves out there the way that you have, in terms of becoming a standup comedian? 

[00:18:53] Deepak: So there’s a two-part answer. First part answer is: how do I measure my success as a standup comedian? So, now I get to the concept of metrics. Believe it or not, even standup comedians have metrics. What I’m going to say now is going to make standup comedy very boring for you, because there’s a method and there is a most-loathed word—pause for effect— process! 

[00:19:18] JJ: Oh, yeah. 

[00:19:19] Deepak: Off the top, who loves the word “process?” I’m sure two people will raise their hands because…only two people raise their hands. So, there is a process, they say. I’m sorry to say that there is a process. So, the two main metrics that standup comedians use are laughs per minute, and if the host called me back or not. Those are the two success metrics I have in evaluating my own performance. So, if you have an HBO show, you’re usually averaging seven to eight laughs per minute. 

[00:19:54] JJ: That’s a lot! 

[00:19:55] Deepak: That’s what the big comedians do—Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, all these people. They have seven to eight laughs a minute, which gives them about 12 seconds to land: set the context and land the punch line and make you laugh. You can go to the nitty-gritties of, is it a guffaw? Is it a smile? Is it a nod? Is it a bellowing laughter? Is it just a titter? You can go into all of that. But for the purposes of this engagement, let’s assume that laughter lasts for two seconds. So, in two seconds, seven laughs, it is 14. So you’ve got about five seconds; about eight seconds to land the joke, for you to get to the last minute. 

[00:20:33] Deepak: So now, the moment I started measuring myself, I now stand at around two laughs per minute. I know, not great—but, hey, I’m not competing against Chris Rock. He has his own problems; I have my own problems. Let’s not even go there. So, once I figured that out, I used to record myself. I would see how many laughs per minute I get. But the one metric where I have always succeeded well is the second one: that I always get called back. I always, always get called back at any event I’m performing. So, of the two metrics, I know I must prioritize the callback metric because it means I have an audience that wants to listen to me. But having done that, then I’m going to optimize the laughs per minute. 

[00:21:21] Deepak: Having said that, what’s the parallel in our world? Each time we ship a product or a feature, do we even know what metrics we’re looking to achieve? Do we even have a hypothesis of, what is it that I’m sure I get? What is it I’m sure I will not get? And what is it am I testing for? So what should we be testing? Strategy. My strategy is: I tell the Donald Trump joke. Are people laughing or not? Usually it’s the diction I use, the speed I use, the sound—intonation I use. And I’m testing all the time how it lands. Can I reduce the joke? Can I tell something else? That’s what I will test for. So once I know my metric, I’m always testing to optimize the second metric, because it’s taken care of. 

[00:22:05] Deepak: Similarly, you have customer acquisition, you have activation, you have a referral, you have engagement, you have retention. Of all those five metrics, what are you trying to optimize for your product or your feature? What are you testing against? What kind of hypothesis do you have, and how do you look at yourself like that? So, clearly, for me now, being called back is the most important metric. I understand to solve for it. And the trick for me is to only do clean comedy. I don’t use swear words. I don’t go below the belt. That’s just my style and I stick to that. But I’m always optimal in the second metric. So what do people want to use there? That’s one part I wanted to share. 

[00:22:47] Deepak: And the last, most important thing is, when you go and look at audiences, when you go and look at the customers in your space, how are you looking at them? What do you see when you see a customer, and how are you trying to test if what you’re saying lands or not? So, in a similar way, a product manager’s validation is: how well was the product perceived, or how well was the product perceived by the customer as solving their problems or not? So short of that, what would you do, if you can’t ship a product because the shipping cycles are quite slow, if you’re an enterprise? If you’re in the consumer space, maybe you have a shorter turnaround, so you’re shipping fast enough. Are you measuring it right? And if you’re not shipping it fast enough, what can you do? 

[00:23:40] Deepak: So the other way of trying that is by mentoring. For example, you’re a product manager, you are not able to ship as fast as you want to. What do you want to do to test out ideas? There are a lot of these forums—Y Combinator, Dev Post—which you can go and volunteer to a product manager for a team. Can you go and scratch your itch there? Can you test your theories there? Can you tell them how to solve their problem, and see how they perceive your input as succeeding or not? So, short of launching a product, short of going on an open-mic stage, can you do something else? Can you go and mentor somebody; help somebody else launch a product? Can you go and offer up your services pro bono to somebody else? So I’d say, if you can’t do open mic—which is my world—do something similar. Short of actual shipping a product, can you help somebody else ship a product? Can you mentor? Can you pro bono—can you give somebody else time to do the same thing? Those are some of the top tips I can think of off the top of my head, JJ. 

[00:24:42] JJ: That’s great advice. And I don’t think I’ll ever think of product metrics or a product dashboard the same way. I’ll always be thinking about your jokes, and if they landed, and your metrics. And I have to be honest: I, again, had never thought about it before. I love the fact that there’s a process and there are actual metrics: jokes per second, and did you get called back. That’s fascinating! Totally makes sense; but of course, I would have never thought about it. I love it. Okay, finally, any final tips for folks out there—and specifically, you’re going to have to tell me about this: PBI. What does that mean? 

[00:25:22] Deepak: Well, if you’re in the corporate world, how can I let you go without throwing some jargon at you? 

[00:25:27] JJ: That’s true! 

[00:25:27] Deepak: We all love three-letter acronyms, and I don’t think I’d be doing justice to the people in the corporate world if I don’t throw some three-letter acronyms at them. All right…so, people, JJ asked for it. Here you go. So, if you’re in sales, you get to hear ABC: always be closing. Here’s my first tip: always be testing. 

[00:25:52] JJ: Ooh, I like that. 

[00:25:54] Deepak: I am always testing new material. I’m always testing new jokes. I am testing something all the time—either it’s a new joke, either it’s a new twist on a joke. Is it a new relevance on a joke? I’m always, always testing. I’m always testing because I know I’m going to get an HBO show only for product managers someday. For that day, I want to have two thousand jokes ready. And depending on who’s in the audience, how many people are laughing or not, I’m going to tailor the 200 jokes just for them. So, always be testing. That’s number one. But the most important thing, I think, that’s helped me stand apart—and hopefully you take away from this conversation—is PBI. PBI means Please Be Interesting. Please be interesting because boring is taken. 

[00:26:57] JJ: Please be interesting. Okay. 

[00:26:58] Deepak: I mean, I didn’t think of it when I was bombing that day, and many other times since. I didn’t think of becoming a product manager; but because I was able to relate in that space—and the first few times I achieve success with that—I’m now able to apply those same ideas back at work. I’m in my—I hope my colleagues are listening to this podcast someday and nodding their heads. I’m always testing material on them…poor guys, they don’t even know that. But if you’re around me, man, I’m always testing material. And that helps me because I’m interesting in that way. And I’ve embraced my own failures, my own story, and turned it around into my success; into my calling card. Maybe standup comedy is not your thing. Maybe it’s art. Maybe it’s painting. The very fact that product management is such an ambiguous career choice—you can’t have a book on it, there’s no certification, there is not a standard definition for it—gives you that license to embrace your own creativity and your own story, and make the career for yourself. Solely for you. Because, again, you get so many product managers who are doing well in life. They’re so good at executing; they’re so good at what they do. But I think for you to uniquely stand out, you’re going to need perspective. Please be interesting. Please be interesting. 

[00:28:20] JJ: That’s so fabulous and I really can see a lot of parallels here. Again, a product manager has to tell stories and has to engage stakeholders and customers, right? And the better they’re able to be interesting and—back to your point earlier, make it about them; not us, not me—the better we are. So that’s fabulous. I love that. And I also love the ABT: always be testing. That’s what we do, right? We’re supposed to be curious beings who are trying out new things and hopefully coming up with new products. So, this has been a really fun discussion. I have to say, this is a unique one. I haven’t had anyone quite like you, Deepak, on my podcast before. So this is so awesome. Thank you so much for sharing your unique and fun story with me. 

[00:29:08] Deepak: Thanks for reaching out to me, and responding back to me. I know I did say, “Pick A.I. or standup comedy.” I know I got your attention to that; but for you to even follow up and say, “Ah, he’s a real person. He’s not a bot; he is not trying to send me money from some other country and into my account number!” Kudos to you. 

[00:29:27] JJ: Oh, though that would’ve been cool, too. 

[00:29:29] Deepak: Yeah. So, kudos to you for reaching out. I’ve enjoyed my time. And again, I’m happy to engage with your audience as your friend. And lastly, I am sadly a unique person on Google, which means I have no life of crime. So, if you go search for me, you’ll land exactly where you expect to land. You’ll see me on Google; on LinkedIn. So if you have any questions on how you are interesting or how you should be interesting, I’m happy to engage and provide my thoughts. So again, JJ, I’ve enjoyed myself. Thank you for having me. And I hope the audience had the same fun as I’ve had today. 

[00:30:04] JJ: I’m sure they have. Deepak, thank you so much. And yes, you guys, please go—go find Deepak and connect. And it is true what he said. He reached out to me and said, “We can talk about A.I. or stand up comedy,” and I said, “Let’s talk about standup comedy.” Maybe we’ll bring him back and talk about A.I. But hopefully, this was a little bit more fun. So, again, thank you so much, Deepak, for joining. And thank you all for joining us on Masters of Product Management, powered by Sequent Learning Networks. I’m JJ Rorie, and I look forward to speaking with you on the next episode.

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