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Valve's flat structure leads to cliques, says ex-employee

Engineer Jeri Ellsworth says lack of hierarchy "breaks down terribly" at large scale, "no way" to make hardware within the company

Valve has made a point of its flat structure, with as little management in the company as possible. That approach empowers talented hires to pursue their own passions in theory, but one former employee says it doesn't always work in practice.

In a recent appearance on The Grey Area podcast, hardware engineer Jeri Ellsworth discussed her time at Valve, as well as the pros and cons of its (lack of) management structure.

"The idea of the flat structure works on the small scale," Ellsworth said. "Where it really, really worked well was in our group, where we had a handful of people. Their structure probably works really well with 20 people or so. It breaks down terribly when you start looking at a company of like, 300 people."

Ellsworth called the Valve Employee Handbook a "very idealized view of what Valve is like." She described the structure as pseudo-flat, where small groups of people can operate as peers who make decisions together.

"The one thing I found out the hard way is that there's actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company, and it felt a lot like high school," Ellsworth said. "There's popular kids that have acquired power within the company, then there's the trouble makers and everyone in between. Everyone in-between is probably OK, then there are the trouble makers that actually want to make a difference. And I was struggling in the company to try to make a difference and make the hardware group move forward."

Ellsworth said she had a difficult time recruiting as "the old-timers" within Valve would reject them as not fitting the company culture, which led to the hardware department being chronically understaffed. As an example, she said the company had a machine shop with millions of dollars of equipment, but it refused to hire a $40,000-a-year machinist to run it because of culture concerns.

Valve's flat management structure also hurts communication within the company, something acknowledged in the employee handbook. Ellsworth said that there were resources within Valve that weren't being used, but she had no way to tap into them because there was no management layer to coordinate things. With no management in place to address employee complaints, she wound up trying to recruit people from within the company. That effort was stymied in part by the company's incentive structure, which rewards employees who work on profitable projects, at times with bonuses that exceed their base salary. Ellsworth said the result is that people are resistant to work on anything but the highest profile projects.

"It's impossible to pull those people away to work on something risky like augmented reality," she said. "They only want to work on the sure thing."

Ellsworth acknowledged some bitterness about her time with Valve, saying the company promised her the world, but failed to follow through. She was laid off in February, along with the rest of her hardware team.

"I was fired for being abrasive, and I probably was," Ellsworth said. "Because there was no way I could see to make a process to actually deliver any hardware inside that company."

Since then, Ellsworth has cofounded Technical Illusions, a company pursuing the CastAR 3D augmented reality game glasses that she had been working on at Valve.

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Latest comments (14)

Adam Campbell Producer, Hopster3 years ago
Sounds fun but was always likely to result in big structural flaws compared to the dream. I also wonder what's happened to half-life. A high level of freedom is great but I still believe solid management and a sense of direction is important for a company.
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Christopher Thigpen Lead Producer, Kiz Studios3 years ago
I understand the frustration and pain she and her staff must have went through. Developing "cliques" within a company's culture is a hard dynamic to overcome. You could be giving the developers the world on a platter, presenting to them wonderful opportunities to help expand their product, as well as teach them better business practices, and if the leads or old timers that have been grandfathered into the culture do not "like" you, you can be reprimanded, or worse, as in this case, laid off for doing your job. It is a no win situation for all involved.

In modern game development you will be hard pressed to find any honor left.

I understand what she and her team went through and I empathize with them. I am glad to see she was able to dust it off and start a company. It seems like the most ideal situation for her to be in. Best of luck to them all.
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Kevin Patterson musician 3 years ago
Jeri 's awesome, she made a commodore 64 bass, how cool is that!! :)
As a bassist and long time gamer, that is pretty much the coolest thing ever.

I was sorry to hear that she was no longer with Valve, I'm looking forward to her work with her new Company.

Go Jeri!
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Show all comments (14)
David Radd Senior Editor, IndustryGamers3 years ago
Perhaps this explains Valve's game release schedule - why work on a risky, multi-year project when you can work on Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2 which are generating lots of money right now with microtransactions?
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Andreia Quinta Creative & People Photographer, Studio52 London3 years ago
@David
Well, by that logic Valve would have been able to count to three by now, as in Half Life 2 Episode 3, Half Life 3, Left 4 Dead 3, etc. Something's a miss, otherwise the old timers would be all over those IP's.

On a related note, this clearly indicates Valve has probably no intention whatsoever to release an official steambox anytime soon.
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Jade Law Senior concept artist, Reloaded Productions3 years ago
Sadly most of this is true of any company though... I've worked at studios with more managers and producers above me than in my own team, cliquey groups within the team and we got little done because of it.

Theres a balance in there somewhere. I wish valve released more games but then maybe their company culture is why they havnt released a bad game.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 3 years ago
Jude, they haven't released a bad game because they cherry pick from the community, when it comes to core creative. The only game they ever made, from the inside starting with core creative, was the Half Life series. All else were external acquisitions that got popularity with them acquiring them after that hard push was done.
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Roland Austinat roland austinat media productions|consulting, IDG, Computec, Spiegel Online3 years ago
Tim, good point. And let's not forget how Half-Life 2 got completely scrapped and redone over the years. There's a great Gamespot feature about that process:

http://www.gamespot.com/features/the-final-hours-of-half-life-2-6112889/

Excellently written by the master of Mountain Dew and Fritos himself. Sad that he's doing mainly videos these days.
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Jade Law Senior concept artist, Reloaded Productions3 years ago
@Tim

At least spell my name right!
Plus none of that negates the fact that they develop in a way that suits them, even if that is incubating an external idea for a while and bringing it inhouse. Original ideas are brought inhouse and they excel at building on top of them. Portal 2, TF2 and L4D are perfect examples. This would suggest they are capable of facilitating quality development once they bring things inhouse.

Another good example.. alien swarm.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 3 years ago
@ Jade

Indeed. And isn't this what other publishers do anyway, just without bringing the IP or dev-team in-house? Mostly every scripted FPS out there is a refinement of what the Half-Life games did and Payday has been described as L4D with bank-robbers and cops, instead of zombies.
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Roman Margold Rendering Software Engineer, Sucker Punch Productions3 years ago
Ellsworth said the result is that people are resistant to work on anything but the highest profile projects. "It's impossible to pull those people away to work on something risky like augmented reality," she said. "They only want to work on the sure thing."
It's funny to read this in between all those articles and comments coming from people from within the industry, saying the publishers should allow more creativity, take more risks etc. And then you see how all those super-creative individuals decide. Yup, this is the reality.
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Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd3 years ago
@Roman: Valve's system is not the only way for a games company to work without the control of a publisher. A team can still have its own green light process process, just based on different values and strategies.
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Roberto Bruno Curious Person 3 years ago
@Roman: what's actually funny to me is reading people complaining for months, if not even years, about Valve not willing to commit on big projects anymore. Then Jeri comes, complains a bit because everyone is too focused on big gaming projects to pay attention to her (frankly uninteresting) augmented reality project and suddenly the same people feel the urge to agree with her that yeah, Valve is too focused on milking their big franchises to be actually creative.
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Eric Leisy VR Production Designer, Nike3 years ago
An interesting read - I've always wondered about the culture inside Valve. It makes sense that a culture like this would be like a highschool lunch hour. I can see a lot of problems coming out of this. But I can also see where it would work - it sounds like a very sink or swim culture. If you are not an intensely driven individual, you are not going to succeed at this company. It would be nice to see them work on developing some of their own IP's like Half Life or something new altogether. From my understanding, their last releases were all things they bought.
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