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

661 comments
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.

MatrixGamer78
MatrixGamer78

Valve backstabbed u very sad. It is valve's nature just few month ago valve also backstabbed Piston which it officially announced at CES 2013 but it is not only a nature of valve we have a very fresh example of MS Xbone 180.

93ChevyNut
93ChevyNut

What's funny is, now, she'll have no choice but to go to Kickstarter.  Cuz no company in the world would hire her now that they know she'll crap on the company of it doesn't go her way.  She needs a little lesson in professionalism.

64-bit
64-bit

old news, valve is the laziest game developer of all time, they took them 9 years to make a damn game. not to mention they cant make the third Half Life 3 due to lack of staffs and resources, the consoles version of TF2 SUX BALLLLS, 

no its not a school, more like a PC FANBOYZ living in a f*cking dirty KITCHEN. 

snova9308
snova9308

so self centered, no wonder valve didn't want you around.

YellowJello
YellowJello

"There's popular kids that have acquired power in the company, and then there's the trouble makers and everyone in between."

..Am I the only one that's lost by this comment? There's a lot "in between." I don't know how someone could think there isn't some kind of upper and lower tier in employee ranks, regardless of how the company is run. Certain people are held to a higher regard for their past achievements, how is that not fair?

lfebaggins
lfebaggins

Valve lets her go with the project they helped start and fund why?  Because:

1) Valve is an awesome company that does what other companies rarely do

-or-

2) From a business perspective, theres not enough upside to continue development


Although most of us would agree with #1, being that most of the people responding to this article are Valve fanboys, lets go with #2 since it makes more sense piecing together with this article.  If you look up castAR project on Google, it sounds pretty cool.  Is it necessary to our future?  No.  Will the gaming industry all come crashing down without its development?  No.  Will Half-Life 3, Doom 4, and all upcoming games still in development suffer in terms of quality without it?  No.  All it is, is if Wii never came out, or PS3 and XBOX360 never coming out with the PSMove or Kinect, either way life would go on.

Now is this non-essential product really worth all the trouble?  She even hints classifying herself as one of the troublemakers.  "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 don't know much about why she would think of herself as one of the troublemakers except her trying to recruit more people to her team.

"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."

Again, its not like Valve is a nearly bankrupt company trying for one last time at success.  If anything those old-timers deserve their biased vetoing power, having stuck around since the days "Valve?  Who da f*** is Valve?  They made Half-Life 1?  Oh okay.  When did that game come out again?".  She on the other hand just started working at Valve in 2012.  Can you really argue 1 year employee vs. 10+ year employee?  Did she really think she had the power to hire anybody without anyone else having a say in the matter?  That is just obnoxious to think that way, a delusional way someone who hasn't been in the working world would think.

Look her up too, read her track record.  Shes mostly done solo work before Valve, she even says herself she had other contracted work and didn't want to commit.  She doesn't seem to know how its like working in an office with other people, because she gives off the impression that after reading the employee handbook, she thought she was working in a place where the janitor can attend the conference meetings with Gabe and the other senior executives and have the same level of executive power.

So again, is it worth all the trouble for a product that will enrich the lives of maybe ten people?  Valve doesn't think so, and after she did this they seem to have made the right call.

oldschoolvandal
oldschoolvandal

Well, of course I may be wrong and generalizations are not a good thing but....in my 20 years in the working force (yeah, I am that old) I can not remember a single person that said "I am the one that works the hardest here" to be considered so by its peers.

Naturally I assume the same applies here.

The_Beanster
The_Beanster

Y u so mad girl?


Anyways, any web of human relationships is going to have a power structure, rather formally laid out or not... that's just how people work. I don't know why this is surprising.

MysteryJ0ker
MysteryJ0ker

So....what she's describing is.... every work place in existence?

Sporks_Calamity
Sporks_Calamity

"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." 

- Well EVERY work places are exactly like that. The same with society, groups or cliques are created using this type of structure. Evidently backed up by this statement: 

"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.". Why she is making an issue out of it, I don't really understand. If she or her team were treated badly, then I can understand the issue.

WolfGrey
WolfGrey

Reposting this from another user.

Here's the dead giveaway - she says she and her team were probably the hardest working people in the company. Usually anyone that says something like this hasn't come to grips with hard working vs value producing. Other Valve employees probably felt pretty insulted by that statement, and they should. Also, Newell let them take the technology with them. That's unheard of in hardware or software - usually corporations hold onto every sliver of IP whether good or bad. I can sense why Valve let someone like this go.

So freakin true.

megamatics
megamatics

The line that first struck me as Narcissism was "We're probably the hardest working people in the company" while referring to her team. the way she was fire is just how it goes in the tech fields. You're highly expendable because the skills you possess can be found in a book. She did take the right step and go into business for herself though... You wont be expendable in that case. 

Vodoo
Vodoo

Sounds like Gabe Newell is following Dennis Dyack's footsteps and how he ran Silicon Knights into the ground.

Kyere
Kyere

Who here actually gives a rat's ass about this? The only thing I want to hear out of Valve, as a gamer, is news of a new Half-Life or Source Engine.

sieg6529
sieg6529

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

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.

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

DoctorWeeTodd
DoctorWeeTodd

@YellowJello Then it's strange that Bay Raitt was let go. He was a former WETA animator and sculptor who led the creation and animation of the model for Gollum for "The Lord of the Rings" movies. He was with the company since 2003 and built the Source Engine's facial animation system. He was also resposible for the inclusion of normal maps and phong shading into the Source Engine.

He and Karen Prell of the Jim Henson Company and Pixar, were VALVe's premier animators.


Shortly before the layoffs he just launched his pet project: Source Filmmaker which was very well received, increased the popularity and quality of Source Engine machinima, and increased Team Fortress 2 attendance. After SFM's release he was regularly releasing and reviewing free tutorials for SFM online.


I really found it surprising that VALVe would let one of their star employees who contributed so much to the company and one of the top animators in the world go. He also seemed like a nice guy, so I don't know if there was a character flaw or a salary issue.

surferosh
surferosh

@lfebaggins   valid points discussed..  people shouldn't read too much into just a a couple of employees' gripe against a company.. there have been far too many positive reports about the company to just dismiss them as 'bad employees'.. in this case, the problem is not with Valve but with this particular employee. and if neither can be blamed, then let's just say they were incompatible. simple as that

wavelength121
wavelength121

@The_Beanster Good for her for speaking up about what she thinks is wrong with the company. Not mad, more disappointed it seems. I understand where she's coming from

YellowJello
YellowJello

@macca366 Missed opportunity to make some kind of Steam or Half-Life joke. Nope, not even a silly pun, just pulled the entire line from the movie.

HonorOfGod
HonorOfGod

@Kyere This has allot to do with it its the very reason why we have not gotten HL3 the place is full of pricks and assholes just like Square Enix and Capcom.

wavelength121
wavelength121

@surferosh @lfebaggins right because they are so completely infallible LOL. and OP i laugh at your biased rundown of someone you have never met and a company you have never worked at

lfebaggins
lfebaggins

@wavelength121 LOL bias.  I'm making an observation from a pattern of behavior.  Do your research kid.  Here I'll help you, read this article.

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/20/technology/20joystick.html?ex=1261198800&en=0e285af90f620c58&ei=5090&_r=0

She ran into a disagreement with a friend and former business partner, then decides to open her own business near his and drives him out of business.  She attends college for circuit design but drops out due to disagreeing with the professors and then says how questioning the professors is frowned upon in that school, publicly denouncing them.  Now the same crap with Valve.  Shes let go, and then denounces them.  Shes vindictive as hell.  Has to always to be right.

But it really doesn't matter if you believe me or if you believe her, it doesn't change the fact that her work has no value.  Read about the castAR project.  As cool as it is, do you think you'll buy virtual reality glasses when they first come out? If you do, then great for you, you'll be like the first guy who bought a hybrid car, overjoyed for the first month then next month you'll say "man I wish this had a longer return policy!"

93ChevyNut
93ChevyNut

@MysteryJ0ker @cuddlyfuzzle Cuddly, not sure where you work, but everywhere I've worked, there's always the "brass", even though sometimes they act like the hierarchy isn't there.  I think MysteryJoker is spot on here.