Valve Is Like A “High School” – Ex-Employee
We usually hear of how incredibly awesome Valve is and how the company has a great ethos, how great it is to work there and the freedom offered to employees. This isn’t one of those times although curiously it comes from an ex-Valve staffer.
Former Valve hardware employee Jeri Ellsworth was researching AR tech when she and four co-workers were let go in February. Ellsworth has spoken out about the company’s famous “pseudo-flat structure.”
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In 2012, a leaked handbook for new Valve employees was subtitled “a fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do” and pitched the idea of a peer-run company with no managers. Ellsworth, however, says the company is controlled by a “hidden layer of powerful management structure” and left her feeling like she was in “high school.”
In a six-part interview for the Grey Area Podcast, Ellsworth details her publicised exit from Valve and the future of the castAR project she was working on. “First of all, I probably should frame this with, I have a lot of friends at Valve. There’s great people there, really really great people, especially in my team, the hardware team. We were really close knit, we were probably the hardest working people in the company.”
“When I first started at Valve,” Ellsworth recounted, “I was very skeptical that they would actually stick with it and I had all these connections in Portland, I had other contracted work I was doing, so I really didn’t want to commit to Valve. But they started pumping me up, and telling me how I’d have all this control of the hardware group and be able to form the group as I’d like, so I started to drink the Kool-Aid.”
“Many of you have probably seen the Valve handbook, which is a very idealised view of what Valve is like. A lot of those things are true in there, like it is kind of a pseudo-flat structure where, at least in small groups, you’re all peers and you make decisions together.”
“The one thing that i found out the hard way is that there is, there is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company. And it feels–felt–a lot like high school.”
“There’s popular kids that have acquired power in the company, and then there’s the trouble makers and everyone in between. Everyone in between is probably okay, and then there’s the trouble makers that actually want to make a difference. I was struggling in the company to try to make a difference, and actually make the hardware group move forward. We were having a very difficult time recruiting folks, because we would interview very talented people and then they would be rejected by the old-timers in Valve as not fitting the culture.”
“There were very few folks in the hardware department, and having been on a lot of hardware projects I know how many people it takes, and we were probably understaffed by like a hundred times what we needed to do all the projects we were dreaming up.”
“The things that do work really good in Valve, that we’re definitely going to bring forward into our new company, is the idea of the flat structure works on a small scale. Where it really really worked well was in our group where we had a handful of people. Their structure probably works really well with twenty people or so, but breaks down terribly when you start looking at a company of, like, 300 people.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Ellsworth recounts that she learnt she was fired from a co-worker and that ultimately, she doesn’t think Valve’s management structure works.
“I’m sounding bitter, and I am. I am really, really bitter because they promised me the world, and then backstabbed me,” she added.
“You give people complete latitude with no checks and balances, it’s just human nature they’re going to try to minimise the work they have to do and maximise the control they have.”
Honestly, Ellsworth’s criticisms do seem like the machinations of someone who is embittered and luckily she was candid enough to admit that. There’s still some stuff worth chewing on from what she said and it’s perhaps no surprise that Valve isn’t as miraculous and free nor as magical as we’d all like to believe.
At the end of the day it’s still a company and it still needs to make money. The retrenchment of employees does seem baffling though as Valve does not appear to be struggling financially and surely those employees could have been given something else to work on.
Gabe Newell did let Jeri Ellsworth walk away with the castAR tech and she is currently looking to turn it into a final product through Kickstarter.