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Former Valve Hardware Designer Recounts Management Difficulties 224

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the lord-of-the-flies dept.
DavidGilbert99 writes "Jeri Ellsworth has opened up about her time at games developer Valve and has hit out strongly at the so-called flatpack management structure. She says that despite Valve's claims of a democratic structure, there is a layer of powerful management in place and when she was fired she felt like she had been stabbed in the back. 'If I sound bitter, it's because I am. I am really, really bitter. They promised me the world and then stabbed me in the back.'" Develop Online has a good transcript. In the end, Gabe Newell at least let her team keep the rights to their augmented reality hardware. She also notes that she still loves Valve, but the management and bonus structure resulted in communication breakdowns at Valve's size. It does seem that a flat structure can work: Andy Wingo has been weblogging about working at Igalia and seems pretty positive about the experience.
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Former Valve Hardware Designer Recounts Management Difficulties

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  • Sadly (Score:2, Insightful)

    by lesincompetent (2836253) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @05:05AM (#44223251)
    Everytime i read "Valve" my thoughts pavlovianly go to HL3. Still not a single word about it?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @05:08AM (#44223261)

    When you hear breathless talk about new paradigms in management social structure it's always people grasping at straws attempting to pin the tail on the contributory factors to their synergy. Good shit comes from selfless people, and selfless people attract parasites and tempt honest people in to taking advantage of the situation when their feelings get hurt.

    Frosty Piss for everyone.

  • by crioca (1394491) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @05:11AM (#44223273)
    If all it takes is for one laid-off ex employee criticizing the management structure for it to be deemed not to have worked, then there's no such thing as a workable management structure.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @05:32AM (#44223361)
    She got paid, got to do what she wanted, didn't get enough resources because the rest didn't believe in it and she couldn't convince them, then she and team got sacked but got to keep the stuff and continue with it.

    Doesn't sound that terrible to me. What other company would have paid her and let her do that?

    Maybe the sacking bit and run-up to it was done badly. But in most other companies you wouldn't even be able to do that project in the first place, much less keep the rights after you got fired.
  • Re:Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mellyra (2676159) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @05:45AM (#44223413)

    Maybe this is not news to you but as far as I can recall the overwhelming reaction after the Valve Handbook became public was unreflected admiration for the structure-less utopia described therein, not "Wait, maybe the lack of official structure means that the actual structure does not cease to exist but only becomes less visible to newcomers and maybe that is not a good thing." If you read the interview transcript you will see that she is in retrospect quite harsh with herself for having drunk the cool-aid and being sorely disappointed as a result. Of course she could have known better from the beginning but she didn't, just as the vast majority of slashdot commenters apparently didn't after they read the Valve handbook for the first time.

    The actually existing elites may have a strong interest in perpetuating the "structureless" myth as their current informal influence may be much larger than what they could reasonably expect as part of any officially acknowledged social structure. So they take recruits that are already attracted by the company's utopian visions, indoctrinate them further to protect their own influence and when at some point the brighter amongst the employees realize the cognitive dissonance between what everyone says and what actually happens and start to lash out in disappointment they get fired to protect the company cult(ure).

  • by FriendlyLurker (50431) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @06:15AM (#44223495)

    if a visible hierarchy isn't allowed, an invisible one will form and bite you in the ass.

    ...and it will form around the worst, most manipulative personality types... which also happen to be the worst leaders.

  • by readingaccount (2909349) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @06:17AM (#44223499)

    by Jo Freeman

    Thought that was worth highlighting.

  • by Culture20 (968837) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @06:54AM (#44223663)
    Valve. Freeman. It's like someone working for ID named "Blazkowicz".
  • by Psychotria (953670) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @07:11AM (#44223725)

    I don't mean to divert attention away from Valve's management structure and handbook, but... well...

    [...] assembling and selling computers. When she and her partner later had a disagreement, Ellsworth opened a separate business in competition.

    [...] she moved to Walla Walla, Washington and attended Walla Walla College, studying circuit design for about a year. She dropped out due to a "cultural mismatch"; Ellsworth said that questioning professors' answers was frowned upon.

    Seems like it's always someone else's fault and never hers. The world is persecuting her!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @07:11AM (#44223729)

    If you look at "income", Valve is successful. Very, indeed. But money is not the only metric. It all tells us Valve got lucky developing two games aaages ago and the being the first to set up a working Digital Distribution System. That they combined it with their second (and last!) successful game was a masterstroke, but only pure luck.
    Had Half-Life 2 not been such a success (say a title in the 80s/100), Steam would not have been taken off like it did.

    If you use the metric "releases successful products" for success, Valve is working mediocre at best.

    They shovelled in a lot of cash with Half-Life and Half-Life 2 until Steam was running with full steam ahead... and that digital distribution platform is carrying them since then. After the initial phase it was a self-sustaining thing that you just need to maintain without screwing up too much. That is basically what Vale has been doing since Half-Life 2 and I ask you: What other successful projects do they have to show that we can use as proof for their successful system? You say "not much" and I agree.

    Valve seems to me very similar to 3DRealms. Both had a major success which gave them money and on that they kept running. Load words once in a while, punching their own chests how successful they are, both claim(ed) to offer a "free and creative" environment without "administrative overhead!!!1" - but both totally lack in coming up with more or better products than companies with "classical" structures. In fact, those classical structures are much more successful at chewing out successful and often high quality products.
    The difference is that Valve has Steam, a product that keeps generating revenue with Other People's Successful Games if you manage to maintain it (which is no problem with the money Valve has, it is not really requireing a lot of insight or creativity), so they can afford to be totally incompetent at creating own games (which they are).

    All Valve achieved lies in the past. And with "past" we need are quickly approaching "a decade and since then the existing stuff just has been maintained".

    They have as truly notable things
    Half Life (1998) + AddOns (1999, 2001)
    Half Life 2 (2004) + Nice AddOns that basically are TechDemos for the Engine
    Portal 2 (see below)

    That is it.
    Portal and Left4Dead they bought in (good call, but more a Publisher-Decision than actual a Develeopment-Success). Buying the right stuff requires money and one or three managers who make the right call, it's no sign your Development Hierarchy works.

  • by Psychotria (953670) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @07:16AM (#44223753)

    And the Wikipedia page you link to clarifies that this "cry baby", "I'm a victim!" attitude of hers is not new. Apparently she didn't fit into formal education, either, because "questioning professors' answers was frowned upon". Now it's happened again. It's "their fault! Nothing to do with me at all." Give me a break. She should just grow up and accept that she's not as special as she thinks she is.

  • by epiphani (254981) <epiphani.dal@net> on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @07:50AM (#44223917)

    I actually thought this through... my first reaction was wow, that sucks. Maybe Valve isn't the utopia that people think it is.

    Then I stepped back and remembered what I've heard about Valve. You make your own decisions - and you're accountable for them. They said they had a million dollar lab, but couldn't hire anyone to do the machining. But who decided to build that lab? Did they spend a million dollars on equipment then not use it?

    A flat organizational structure doesn't mean there's no politics. It means politics are MORE important - it's harder for some team to simply burn cash, because everyone's eyes are on you. It's hugely increased freedom - but all of the responsibility that comes with it. Assuming that anyone in Valve could decide to go build a million dollar lab, what do you think would happen if it failed to get utilized?

    This is one side of the story from one person. I'm sure there's more to it than the lab, but the lab example shows a basic misunderstanding of the personal responsibility one has in a flat org structure.

  • by Ash Vince (602485) * on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @07:55AM (#44223939) Journal

    And the Wikipedia page you link to clarifies that this "cry baby", "I'm a victim!" attitude of hers is not new. Apparently she didn't fit into formal education, either, because "questioning professors' answers was frowned upon". Now it's happened again. It's "their fault! Nothing to do with me at all." Give me a break. She should just grow up and accept that she's not as special as she thinks she is.

    Actually she might be very special, but that is utterly irrelevant when you work as part of a team.

    It sounds like she was easily able to drive her own team, and manage those beneath her. But those are the easy part of management, the hard bit is called managing up (In this case it is probably more like managing across).

    What she needed to do was go round every different person in the company she could and get their buy in and input into what her project should do and most importantly why it was a good idea. This probably seemed very strange to her as the boss had given her a task and she wanted to do it. She was probably expected to recruit other people from within the company who liked her idea to spend a bit of time on it. This is why they kept her department under resourced. That means long hours learning what everyone else does, forcing yourself into the existing social scene within the company, talking to people to find people who might be able to help you even though they are not strictly part of your team.

    It sounds what she actually tried to do was hire a microcosm to work for her and just drop in a hierarchical department within a company that has no hierarchy. That was obviously never going to work and the company was never going to allow it to flourish.

    It seems like her biggest problem is that the masses at Valve simply did not get behind her idea, that is why she was allowed to keep her product as they did not hold it in high enough esteem. Maybe they were right, maybe she was, only time will tell.

  • by Rockoon (1252108) on Tuesday July 09, 2013 @11:56AM (#44226367)

    [...] assembling and selling computers. When she and her partner later had a disagreement, Ellsworth opened a separate business in competition.

    I have notice how you have failed to quote the part about how that separate competing business that she started turned out to be quite successful. So it was her partners fault, after all.

    [...] she moved to Walla Walla, Washington and attended Walla Walla College, studying circuit design for about a year. She dropped out due to a "cultural mismatch"; Ellsworth said that questioning professors' answers was frowned upon.

    I have noticed how you have failed to quote the part about her being a success prior to attending this college, or how much bigger of a success she became after leaving college.

    This is a girl that forges ahead to success, not a failure like you claim. Starting to think that you are that original business partner. A person that completely missed the boat, and it was your own fault.

There is hardly a thing in the world that some man can not make a little worse and sell a little cheaper.

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