Ex-Valve employee blasts the company for feeling like "high school"

Former Valve hardware employee Jeri Ellsworth says Valve features "a hidden layer of powerful management structure", and criticises its supposedly flat management structure.

Former Valve hardware employee Jeri Ellsworth, who was let go from the company back in February 2013 along with the four co-workers that were researching augmented reality technology, has spoken about her time with the company and its famous "pseudo-flat structure."

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."

Valve boss Gabe Newell gave the castAR technology to Ellsworth when letting her go from the company, and she is now looking, via a little help from Kickstarter, to turn the tech into a finished product.

Written By

Hi! I'm Martin, for some reason or another I have managed to convince the people who run GameSpot that I am actually wor

Discussion

690 comments
vadagar1
vadagar1

who necroed this article?

fluffy_kins
fluffy_kins

Most work places are really clique-y and feel like going right back to high school, unfortunately. It sucks because you get to college and think you've moved past all that BS and then... nope. You're right back in it.

dementedlullaby
dementedlullaby

"we were probably the hardest working people in the company.""


Saying things like this makes you sound like a jerk. 

Lord_Badmagic
Lord_Badmagic

"July 8, 2013" was something added? Not sure why this was on the front.  As for the content...  What on earth is this person whining about?

k41m
k41m

Valve hasn't done sh!t lately, for awhile really. 

skootbootz
skootbootz

Well at least they didn't steal castAR from her, which I'm sure they legally had the right to do. 

TheMagicFro
TheMagicFro

I don't doubt valve is cliquey. It's human nature to form groups in an environment with no "perceived" superiors and leaders. I'm worried that valve is squandering their resources by trying to be business model revolutionaries and doing too much instead of just focusing on making quality games.

On the other hand maybe the renewed interest in virtual reality is just a returning novelty and they felt it was not really worth the effort, Personally I don't think it will become a standard. I know it can be upsetting to have a project you've poured your heart into canned but accepting it and moving on is all apart of being a professional. At least she got to keep the tech she worked on.

KungfuKitten
KungfuKitten

So they try to avoid the standard top-down power structure of a company/dictatorship, and make everyone more equal. What they get is a natural forming of groups of people who can then stand together to keep out any people who threaten their safety, any 'outsiders'. I don't know of an easy way to combat that.

You could sort of revolve teams so that they work with/only have contact with certain different compositions of people from the company every once in a while. You could award innovative ideas, trying to make a difference and put people who are  'whistleblowing' (telling the company of things that are going on that are not nice) on a pedestal.

The idea being that 'outsiders' and 'different people' and people who 'want to make a difference' become the center of positive attention. And that natural group forming to exclude people is put forward as a serious offense. I dunno if any of that works or is counterproductive.

These innovative companies are important for all of us so let's not be too quick to call it a failure. I think we can all agree (if you are not a boss) that the top-down structures in place don't work well. You get more business politics than work getting done, that blind the company from making decisions based on the right information; it puts people in positions that they are not good at, and creates a very nice breeding ground at the top for sociopaths and corruption. I think we all have plenty of examples in the companies we work at that the current systems are not functioning as they should, either.

LadyAika
LadyAika

I worked for a company recently with a similar enviroment :c I would consider myself a troublemaker trying to make a difference :D

fillup0
fillup0

I always thought Valve was far to slack which explains why they bring out games at a very slow rate and are starting to fall behind with Steam. At the same time she's obviously extremely bitter about being axed from Valve.

cratecruncher
cratecruncher

Sounds to me like she got too emotionally attached to her baby and couldn't let it go. Lots of projects die on the vine and the talent is moved to another good idea.  For whatever reason she wasn't having any of that and so they cut her loose with her loser project. There's a fine line between passionate and crazy.

Mausolus
Mausolus

It's amazing how many fired employees worked for companies that treat their employees terribly. Most of them I expect. If you want a balanced picture it's best to talk to people that actually still work there.

Redsyrup
Redsyrup

At my Firm you're only as good as your last project. No one's allowed a free ride. Even the Shareholders are held accountable for what they can bring to the table.

gregrout
gregrout

All companies work on this principle. They look for eager young talent with the latest training, milk them with promises of great things. They get a lot of free overtime, 80 hour weeks and when they crash and burn out they cut them loose. You rinse and repeat this process especially in the IT industry you'll stay afloat, you keep your training and benefits expenses down.  

balintcsikos
balintcsikos

For me Valve is a lazy company. They made a few good games back then and now they are just sitting there and masturbating. Waiting years for a release when all gamer know about the game and then they don't need any advertisement because the hype is already there. Oh and don't forget they are making new IPs from mods of other games which the community finds good. Clever but lazy.

Randell44
Randell44

That's how they maintain their company at it's current success rate.  250 official employees, makes millions, changes the industry.  Has a higher profit per head than basically any other game company.


They are selective with their games, endeavors, and people.  It's what got them where they are and she knew that when she hired on there.  She's just mad they rejected her friend and tried to commit career suicide based off of emotions rather than an understanding of the situation.


If they opened the flood gates and stopped that company culture, they would likely go evil really really quickly.

MrOrbitz
MrOrbitz

No wonder nothing ever comes out of Valve. If it can't be done in a week it's probably too much work for the sods. That's why they stick to hats and other meaningless crap for TF2 or whatever.

spindie
spindie

lol It's funny how gamespot tries to feed the trolls these days, she just casually said it reminded her of  feeling like high school and gamespot turns the headline into GIRL "BLASTS" VALVE FOR FEELING LIKE HIGH SCHOOL

SDSkarface
SDSkarface

Valve needs to not worry about all of this and come up with a new source engine.. because their graphics look like trash. Any source engine game runs at over 100fps on my PC..Pathetic. While DICE,Crytek and Epic come up with a new engine for every game Valve has been too busy selling hats on TF2. Priorities..look into it.

June-GS
June-GS

I still like Mr. Gabe Newell, and Valve in general, but I'm not exactly surprised by Jeri Ellsworth's revelations either. There's no one specific incident I can remember, but according to a couple of friends (from the modding community), there is a certain level of "power" exercised by some popular old-timers over the rest. For all his good intentions, King Newell should really do something about these abusive subjects. It's better for everybody in the long run.

shantd
shantd

For me, the most significant sentence in this article:

"Valve boss Gabe Newell gave the castAR technology to Ellsworth when letting her go from the company"

I can tell you from years in the corporate world, it is essentially unheard of for the company to let an employee "keep" the tech that he/she worked on when being fired. In fact I've never heard of such a thing. Normally they fire the employee and either hand their work off to someone else or shelve it for a rainy day. Even if there is "no upside to continue development", they gain absolutely nothing by simply giving it away...especially to someone they're firing. It would make much more sense, from the corporation's perspective, to keep the tech 'just in case'.

If nothing else, that tells you Valve does seem to operate by scruples that most corporations don't. 

tiusej1
tiusej1

Sorry but "It feels like high school" is just such a stupid thing to say.

MonkerzX
MonkerzX

I just want to mention: A brief Googling of castAR shows its an "Augmented Reality" thing.

It's basically a different Occulus Rift. Considering how well established the Rift is, I fear that castAR is a completely worthless property.

Not all that surprised that Valve don't really care about it.

SauhlGood
SauhlGood

Every place I have worked for from, fast-food to clothing outlets, even at law firms there is a hierarchy as she describes it "popular, troublemaker, everything in between"

Whatever valve is doing, even if the whole culture is centered around a tight group of people, its working, the company is spectacular imo.  Perhaps because of its tightly knit orientation... Vision is always better than design by committee.  It may frustrate others that they don't get to have a say, but frankly im happy about that. Whoever promised people that the world is fair, if you wait your turn youl get your chance, did them a big disservice.

Deano
Deano

unless you worked at valve you aren't in any position to say she is wrong.

slapnutsgt
slapnutsgt

Hmm sounds like someone is upset because they wanted to make a power play to be a shot caller at a company that doesn't have "shot callers."

Sounds like she is on the correct career path now.

USAPATRIOT21
USAPATRIOT21

Hard to believe that Valve would fire this gem.

chadchu1
chadchu1

@dementedlullaby No, it doesn't. Maybe they were & maybe most of the other people there were lazy. She should've said "group" instead of people but the fact that that one sentence is the only thing you're focusing on makes you sound like a jerk.

DocMARs
DocMARs

@LadyAika I work for a very similarly structured company as well (and I stress, not that this is a bad thing), and I, in many ways, consider myself to be a troublemaker, or at least that's the feeling I get. And of course, it's not that we're trying to get attention or gain some sort of reputation. It's more that we won't settle for bad work, or mediocre delivery of whatever we are creating, and being adamant about that level of quality just so happens to make waves at the same time.


Good on you for doing just that! :)

m_a_t_h_e_a_d_
m_a_t_h_e_a_d_

@cratecruncher Obviously, you've never worked in a company with faux-flat structure. I have for about 10 years and I can tell you that what I read here felt word for word like a reiteration of my own experience. Power in a group always exists in some form and, with a renouncement on classic hierarchy comes the danger of ganging and mobbing by people who like to create de-facto hierarchies by blocking too creative co-workers and by keeping anyone who could be a threat to threir power a large. Flat hierarchy can go very wrong and when it does, it's basically the rule of the jungle.

crunchb3rry
crunchb3rry

@Mausolus Yeah, but with Valve shifting to standalone consoles and fancy controllers, they're like EA now. More concerned about the stock market. I remember stories from old EA employees that talked about Nerf gun wars on their lunch breaks, and then one day all the guys in suits and ties came in and it became an entirely different employer. That was around the time the "Wives of EA employees" stories came about, about "crunch time" and mandated shifts without much in regards to compensation for the effort they put in and the money the company actually pockets.

captaincrispy
captaincrispy

@Redsyrup I advocate you look at your use of the term 'free ride' in the context you used it in, and reevaluate the appropriateness of the usage while taking into account its correct definition.

bojanglatron
bojanglatron

@Redsyrup Uh don't shareholders buy shares in the company? That is what the word shareholder implies. That is what they bring to the table - they are the reason the rest of the firm makes money. If I bought shares in your firm and then got a call complaining about me not pulling my wait I would pull my shares right back out of your company, stat. 

sieg6529
sieg6529

@MrOrbitz And as long as people keep buying them like crazy, they have no incentive to change.

sortajan
sortajan

@spindie She also said their system doesn't work and that they backstabbed her.

thegroovenic
thegroovenic

@SDSkarface

Dice, Crytek and Epic come up with a  brand new engine for every game?

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

I'm sorry but....HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

That was extremely funny. Those three companies are now FINALLY using new Engines.

fillup0
fillup0

@SDSkarface How do the likes of Portal 2 look like crap? They're working on a new engine now don't worry about it.

danjammer69
danjammer69

@shantd True.


In most companies, even 'personal' side work, when done on company time is usually considered company property.

For His Gabeness to let her take the tech with her is a pretty honorable thing to do...even if it was to try and stave off a lawsuit.

klugenbeel
klugenbeel

@tiusej1 The fact its repeated several times in the story, makes me feel the writer was just filling things into make a longer article. On top of her admission she is bitter...geez, sounds like someone is just slinging angry mud at this point. Gabe let you keep the work you did, yeah company is horrible...what company lets people take things they worked on and keep it when they fire peopel, almost no one.

SythisTaru
SythisTaru

@SauhlGood Except they take forever to make anything and the games release with tiny amounts of content.

wavelength121
wavelength121

@slapnutsgt actually if you went to the trouble to read the quote and not just jump to conclusions you'd notice that her problems with the company is that it not only has "shot callers" but it's stacked in a way to constrict upward mobility and stagnate everyone right where they are.

At minimum you are deluding yourself if you think nobody calls the shots at Valve. Here's a hint: it starts with G and ends with abe Newell

cratecruncher
cratecruncher

@m_a_t_h_e_a_d_  Be careful when making those "obvious" conclusions initiate.  In my early career I ran concept teams similar to this gal.  Back then we called it a "matrix organization" where people share time among several different teams and come and go as needed.


Young engineers often don't have a lick of business sense but the team manager's most important job is to be the cheerleader and keep sr. mgmt. interested (and resources flowing to the program).  How?  I always looked for customer feedback using focus groups and demos to support our business projections.  But concepts are risky and don't happen in a vacuum.  Sometimes you hit a technical wall,  competitors are at work too. When things aren't trending the right direction it's sr. mgmt.'s job to preserve the company resources and shut it down.  Every technical organization has a ranked list of projects they could be working on.  There should be 2 or 3 times as many projects as resources and the projects get shuffled constantly based on new info.  I'm sure Valve has a HUGE list!


Gabe Newel was no doubt excited about hardware a few years ago (steam machines, haptic controllers, virtual reality, etc.)  He has since cooled on most of that stuff after seeing the crowded marketplace, huge capital outlays, and meager margins choosing instead to double down on digital distribution etc.  The ex-Valve lady should have seen the writing on the wall and jumped ship to Oculus or somewhere like everyone else did.  Instead, she dug in and became a martyr for her project.  Now the entire industry knows her and for all the wrong reasons.

ItsTheSasquatch
ItsTheSasquatch

@danjammer69 @shantd With some of the nastier corporations it doesn't even have to be on company time. They put BS in the fine print of their employment contracts that makes anything you do--or even think about doing--while employed by them their property, and you either agree to it or don't get the job. Should be criminal, but the companies that do it tend to be big enough that that'll never happen.