Working at Valve


“A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.”

This line appears on the cover of the Valve employee handbook, and it accurately describes the company culture that is, by all conventional measures, entirely backwards from a traditional work environment.

“Imagine working with super smart, super talented colleagues in a free-wheeling, innovative environment—no bosses, no middle management, no bureaucracy.  Just highly motivated peers coming together to make cool stuff. It’s amazing what creative people can come up with when there’s nobody there telling them what to do.”

Holy shit.  Sign me up TODAY.  No approval processes, no red tape, no asshole supervisors cockblocking my attempts to stand out and earn that 3% raise instead of the 2.5% one all my coworkers will get just for coming into work each day and existing.  Valve is different.  It’s the organizational structure most people dream of, and it’s a shining example of the success that can follow when bright people are left to do their thing.

But what are the downsides?  Why would you ever NOT want to work at this mythical place where portals, headcrabs, and zombies co-exist in glorious harmony?

In this article, I examine some of the core components that comprise the DNA of Valve, and provide some perspective on what might be great and what might not.

1)  There is no organizational structure

I know, I know.  We just covered this, and at first it sounds great.  But imagine taking your current work group, department, overall company even, and removing all of the team leads, supervisors, directors, and any other managerial role.  How would you know what to work on?  Who would guide the company in any sort of direction to ensure the employees weren’t completely spinning their tires in the mud with projects that are doomed from the get-go?

How would Half-Life 3 ever get out the door?

"Fuck it. I'm going to work for Blizzard." -Gordon Freeman

“Fuck it. I’m going to work for Blizzard.” -Gordon Freeman

2)  Compensation is based on peer review and stack ranking

This… just sounds awful.  To me at least.  As much as I bitch and moan about structured, annual reviews that fit employee performance to a statistical curve, I can’t even imagine my compensation being directly tied solely to the opinions of my peers and my place on the internal totem pole of perceived performance.

But you know what?  I’m not even sure pay increases are a big concern for most employees.

According to Glassdoor, software engineers at the company are pulling in well over six figures a year, which puts Valve in the ranks of the most glamorous tech companies like Google and Facebook in terms of base compensation.

We’ll give you $115,000/year to work on whatever you think is in the best interest of the company and our customers, with no one telling you what to do.  Yeah, I don’t think many people are going to complain about that.

3)  You’re responsible for your own skill development and growth

Up to this point in my career, I’ve worked at companies with 11,000 employees on the low end to 33,000 on the high end.  Structured training, development plans, and mentors have been available to me out the wazoo since day one, so I can’t even imagine just diving in on my own and hoping I’m learning what I need to.

“I got this! Probably. Help…”

Mentoring people is specifically called out as something Valve realizes they are not good at on page 52 of the handbook.  “Not just helping new people figure things out, but proactively helping people to grow in areas where they need help is something we’re organizationally not great at.  Peer reviews help, but they can only go so far.”

Kudos to any company for recognizing its shortcomings, but this seems like one cultural aspect that would drive a lot of people crazy unless you really find the right people with the mindset to excel in this type of environment.  This brings us to number four.

4)  Hiring the right employees is the highest priority

“Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe.  Nothing else comes close.  It’s more important than breathing.”

Throughout the handbook, it’s frequently stressed that hiring is biggest area of focus for Valve, and I can certainly see why.  You would really have to find people with the highest levels of self-motivation to be successful in this sort of work culture.

With the extreme amount of care and focus placed on finding the right fit, it’s no surprise that the company is incredibly selective about who they end up bringing on board.  The estimated number of employees at the company is a mere 360; an increase of about 20% from over four years ago.

5)  On-site perks make workers happy

Massage rooms, drop-off laundry service, Thursday lunches, and of course, lots of snacks.  Valve is taking the approach of so many progressive companies and is promoting a culture where it’s OK to step away from the desk for an hour to play darts, decompress, grab a free espresso, and re-center so your mind is ready to jump back in after getting a break.

Just another corporate drone

Just another corporate drone

The cynic in me wants to say, “Of course they provide those amenities.  The happier you are at work, the longer you’ll stay at work, and the more work you’ll get done.”  And while that’s probably a fair assessment to make, even if those benefits really are in the company’s best interest, is that truly a bad thing?

Besides, Valve is forthcoming in their aversion to working unnecessarily long hours.  Their view is that “… for the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication.”

Oh, and let’s not forget, that even if you do have to work a few extra hours during crunch time leading up to a product release, the company takes all the employees and their families on a vacation for one week each year.

There is a lot more to check out in the employee handbook, as I’ve only covered some of the highlights here.  It’s worth a read just to see how an entirely different approach can still yield successful results.

Whether you agree or disagree with Valve’s approach to running the company, one thing is certain: They’re making a shitload of money.  Steam is estimated to account for 15% of the paid PC game sales in the global market, and the platform generated an approximate $3.5 billion (yes, BILLION with a B) in revenue for the company in 2015.

We may never see Half-Life 3, but Valve is doing just fine, and the employees who are the right fit for the company culture can be proud of the incredible place they get to work.

What do you think about Valve’s culture?  Did something stand out as an awesome quality or a huge red flag?  We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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