Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Former Valve Employee Speaks Out Against the Company

"... they promised me the world and then stabbed me in the back."

Game wise, Valve is one of those companies that people generally consider one of the front-runners of the industry. Their releases are often met with universal praise, and lauded for their emphasis of quality and longevity over just making a quick buck. However, while the impression that the outside world gets is often very good, apparently if anyone is planning on trying to join the company behind the scenes, they may want to reconsider; at least according to a person that used to be one of their own.

You may have actually read an article or two months ago that noted that Valve had laid off quite a few employees. Roughly 25 employees from a staff of about 300 is quite a large number, all things considered. Well, one of the more notable names from that group of people, former head of hardware Jeri Ellsworth, has recently spoken out, lambasting the company over "flat management" system which is supposed to result in everyone getting a fair chance in the company.

"Now we've all seen the Valve handbook, which offers a very idealised view. A lot of that is true. It is a pseudo-flat structure, where in small groups at least in small groups you are all peers and make decisions together.

"But the one thing I found out the hard way is that there is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company. And it felt a lot like High School. There are popular kids that have acquired power, then there's the trouble makers, and then everyone in between. Everyone in between is ok, but the trouble makers are the ones trying to make a difference.

"I was struggling trying to build this hardware team and move the company forward. We were having a difficult time recruiting folks - because we would be interviewing a lot of talented folks but the old timers would reject them for not fitting into the culture.

"I shouldn't say the numbers, but there were very few of us in the hardware department. We were understaffed by about a factor of 100."

What unfolds in those, and many other paragraphs, is quite a damming indictment of the company's policies. Even though everyone has a say, it's a select group that wields the power via popularity and with it, the ability to get rid of those that they find problematic, even though they may be in the minority in thinking so.

While there is an obvious warning in regards to bias -- it is a former employee of the company talking here -- it's also not hard to imagine that what she's saying is true. Things like "Flat Management" look good on paper: everyone gets a say, no one is more or less important than anyone else. In practice though you see the same kind of stuff that it said to have happened here; cliques form, some groups wield more power (even if only informally) than others, those that go against the grain find themselves struggling uphill, or worse, let go due to vague reasoning.

"If I sound bitter, it's because I am. I am really, really bitter. Because they promised me the world and then stabbed me in the back.

"What I learned from Valve is that I don't think it works. Give people complete latitude with no checks and balances it is human nature that they will minimise the work that they do and increase the control that they have."

Even though I still like a majority of the stuff that Valve has put out, both game and industry wise, I can't help but be disappointed if these accusations are true. As a company gamers have put a lot, and I mean A LOT, of faith in the company. If I were to make a comparison I would say that they and Google have a lot in common, in that people are sure that neither company is going to "turn evil" so to speak and embrace the practices that have made their competitors reviled. However, things like this cause me to wonder if sometimes we're still too trusting.

1 comment:

  1. "Game wise, Valve is one of those companies that people generally consider one of the front-runners of the industry."

    I'll say. The way people talk about it, I would have figured that Valve was a loose association of angels and deities with an appreciation of earthly conventions -- casual Fridays well among them.

    But by the sound of things, perhaps the halls of Valve HQ aren't as holy as I would have assumed. It sounds almost...natural, if you can believe that. Someone has to take control and put SOME kind of order in place; why not the old timers? Why not the popular kids? Good intentions and organization build aside, there's only so much that can be done.

    Business is business. Problematic, to be sure, but given the nature of the game industry -- or any industry, for that matter -- it sounds like the sort of thing that could have been worse. Much worse.

    I don't want to excuse what's happened here, but some positive thinking is better than none.

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