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Connect With Your Team, Or With Customers?

Elfredy Cadapan is in a unique position at OpenVPN: as the Director of Product Development, he has knowledge not only in development, but in operations, support, and sales. He understands both the customer side and the internal side of his work, which is a rare combination. Not only does he need a deep understanding of the market and customers in order to design products that will be effective, he needs to be able to communicate to the development teams that will create those products. Those are inherently different skillsets, usually reserved for inherently different roles — so balancing both can be tricky.  

Considering 72% of employees say they can’t find the information they need within their company’s infrastructure, connecting to your team is one of the most essential (and most difficult) aspects of managerial leadership. And with customer service being the #1 factor that affects customer trust, connecting to customers is likewise more essential than ever. So when your job requires skill in both, the best way to manage both is to find the common denominator — which is exactly what Cadapan’s done. 

Whether he’s managing a dev team or researching the market, Cadapan’s strategy is the same: he offers support. He focuses on how he can make their lives easier.  “Most of my time is spent managing the various dev teams and coordinating between them — specifically, removing roadblocks and making sure the projects are progressing.” Removing roadblocks, according to Cadapan, may involve running between different teams to help keep things moving smoothly, researching solutions and code when developers are stumped, or even physically configuring infrastructure for individual developers to get things going. Essentially, if there’s something keeping his teams from being productive, he finds a way to remove that problem. He supports his team, rather than making demands. Research shows that working as a team significantly increases performance, so it’s no surprise that Cadapan has found success at OpenVPN — his management style is all about teamwork and support. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean communication isn’t difficult, especially with a largely remote team. Cadapan travels to Ukraine 2-3 times a year, and he works closely with the remote teams regardless of time zones; he’ll put in extra work to accommodate remote devs, and often makes himself available for them outside office hours if they need something urgent. But whether they’re remote or not, developers need a particular kind of management that Cadapan is well familiar with. It’s creative work, after all. 

“Managing developers is a bit like herding cats,” he says, referencing an old cliché. “They need long periods of focus and concentration; breaking the focus can cause delays. So I tend to rely on non-immediate methods of communication, like Slack — messages that can be answered during free time, as opposed to voice calls that need to be answered now and interrupt work.” When your team lives in another country, a lot of the excess ‘water cooler talk’ you’d find in an office naturally gets whittled down. Communication is about connecting on the core issues — figuring out how to move the dial forward together. In Cadapan’s role, that might involve solving a problem, or it might involve making a decision. “I do research to find possible solutions for technical problems,” Cadapan explains, “or I sit down with them and review their code, and in many cases I am able to suggest several avenues to fix it.” 

Thanks to Cadapan’s varied skillset, he comes well-equipped to make the decisions that his team might have trouble with. “One common roadblock is when devs need to decide between several choices on a particular implementation detail — but since I have a "higher view" and have insight into our business needs, I can usually make a decision that serves our business requirements better, that the dev doesn't have since they do not have close contact with customers or management.” 

It’s that close contact with customers, combined with the domain knowledge gained from physically running the OpenVPN infrastructure as part of the Ops team for years, that helps Cadapan bring OpenVPN products to market. His connection and knowledge of the base and the product brings consistent success to a process that can be, for many companies, riddled with stress or confusion. “No project plan survives contact with the userbase,” he says, “and you have to be able to adapt to changing circumstances.” As the team adds new features, Cadapan makes sure they’re solving customer problems every time. He goes through support tickets himself, and even connects directly to the customers to discuss what they want and need. “In the past several years I actually directly handled both Access Server and Private Tunnel support myself, so I have a good idea of how our current customers use our products.” Communication here isn’t just about making a customer feel good in the moment — it’s about identifying pain points and learning how the products can address those directly. 

The more you talk with Cadapan, the more it’s clear that he’s able to manage two such varying communication styles because he’s not focused on asking for more — he’s focused on giving more. Managing teams means finding how to help them succeed, and connecting with customers means finding what they really need. All communication can really be boiled down to that simple principle: Are you giving? Or are you taking? 

The counterintuitive part of all this is that when you focus on giving, as Cadapan does, you often end up with exactly the results you need. His teams do succeed, and seeing those projects come to fruition is, for Cadapan, one of the best parts of the job. 

“I’m just happy to get products out that I’ve been working on for the better part of a decade.” 

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