Sunday, August 10, 2014

Flying desks at Valve


Not long ago I wrote a paper or two about "the boss". No, not Bruce Springsteen, but the way how companies are tight together and rely on leadership. Hate it or love it, but hierarchy is a proven -although maybe somewhat dated- system. Imagine if the army didn't work with sergeants, captains, generals and Stratego spies. It would crumble apart, or at least get extremely messy (see terrorist cells). To begin with, even sport-freaks and sadomasochists don't like to get systematically barked at, skip nights, walk their off in the mud, sleep in the cold, or save private Ryan risking their lives. Higher ranks are needed to make people do what they should do.

You can guess what happens if the Lieutenant told his men to decide for themselves what to do. "You can walk a patrol, or stay in bed, whatever man". Ironically, maybe the Germans and Allies would be drinking Schnapps, play cards and chase farm girls. Instead of bombarding each other. The average soldier probably didn't want to get shot, or see his friends get shot. The average soldier didn't like to get shelled or murder another human being. The average soldier -a teenager/young adult- probably didn't even like to be in a warzone in the first place. So why did they kill then? Because they were told to.

"Group dynamics" is a fascinating thing. If a stranger would order you to eat your shorts, or slap another random by-passer, would you do it? Probably not. But what if your best friend would ask it? Or a hot chick? Or if that stranger asked kindly with a pistol in his hands? Hundred thousands of men didn't dump their souls in a war just because some elite fools had desires. Fear made them do it. Getting locked up (or worse) for desertion is an obvious factor, but maybe even stronger is the fear of getting isolated from the "group", being a coward. Monkeys see, monkeys do.

Nevertheless, contributing to a war, or just even doing service isn't exactly "fun", apart from those who love to push their bodies to the limit. Pressure from the group and reprisals are needed to make you give twenty with the nose in the dirt. But reprisals don't work if they come from a (physical) weaker person. So voila, a ranking system was made. Major Pain might be older, smaller and uglier than you, yet he still has the power to punish you and your platoon with toothbrushes + latrines.

Who’s boss?
The army is a very pure and logical example of a hierarchical system. But the same happens more or less in any other company. And if it doesn't, chances are big it has serious discipline and performance issues. Would dustmen still collect garbage if their boss doesn't give a damn? Did you work 10% harder and sweat more, plucking tomatoes on your first job, when the chief was nowhere around? Does your colleague automatically do the stinky boring tasks if you don't chase his ass? By nature, most people don't like taking orders. If my girl asks me to hang up those curtains already, I tell her I'll do it tomorrow (tired from work, stomach aches, don’t have the right tools). If she keeps whining about it, I'll shorten her kitchen-leash. Get cook'n woman.

Taking those orders from a higher placed person helps though. Besides refusing bed-duty or swapping me for a much cooler black guy, there is little my girl can do about my laziness. But a chief at work could fire me... or reward me if I'll do my stinking best. It works in both ways. But then if my "equal" colleague comes around the corner again, and asks for help, I'll say he can jerk off. Who the hell do he think he is?! Carry your own boxes.

Off topic, a new T22 asset

As usual I'm using Laurel & Hardy stereotype sketches, but you get my point. I'm old fashioned, and I believe in some discipline and hierarchy. But now the the story-turning-point comes!! Searching for some Halflife3 news (yes, I still do that now and then, and no, no news) I suddenly stumbled on this: "Valve- Handbook for new employees"
. Being a creative company, I could figure Valve working a bit different than the local beer-box-glue factory, or the army. But this paper was quite surprising. Refreshing.

Early in the Handbook, Valve explains its company hierarchy: There is none! There is an owner/CEO (Gabe Newell), but technically he is on the same level as any other worker at Valve. Well, hold on Rick, that's just some fancy floaty woolly "check us, we’re nice guys!" method to calm newcomers. Another hopeless way of telling employees "don't be shy, share your ideas, we won't bite!". Companies, schools and other instances often have slogans. "Customer is king" or "Your toilet is our mission", "innovative". Or "Respect". Whatever. Words are still hollow, if the customer can go fuck himself when asking complicated things, if the toilet couldn't be fixed, if ideas are decimated, or if kids bully each other while the coaches turn their backs.

But reading the Handbook further, they really are serious about it. Having no hierarchy isn't just some catchy mood-setter, thought by an anarchist, hippy-artist or spineless coward. No, it's deeply rooted in, well, pretty much everything they do. Allow me to explain.

Say what?!
Unlike the military we discussed, there are no higher placed "captains" at Valve, or lower "minions" for that matter. I know what you are thinking. You're thinking somebody still has to give tasks, cut ropes, or at least give long-term goals (like finishing that $#% HL3 game already!). But no, they don't. And here is where Valve differs fundamentally with 99,9% of the other companies. Of course decisions have to be made, but Valve doesn't assign such a task to a specific person. There is no specific "planner", "lead-artist", or "man with the wallet". Today you could decide to recruit and hire 2 new employees, tomorrow your new employee comes up with new ideas, and the day after that you tell Gabe Newell that you'll be working on GameX instead of Half life3 for the next month.

My old brain would crunch and squeak when hearing this. How..? What.. If? .. But but but? I can think of hundred things that can go wrong. Demotivation was explained already. But how about information and delegation? In the companies I work, I know which person can bring me parts from the warehouse, I know who to call when there are troubles. The Ghost Busters. Yell the electricians if the Volts are shocking, or have a chat with the sales department if you want to know numbers and figures. All the boys and girls in the factory know the official channels if they need something. Taking vacation, ordering new work shoes, calling of sick, et cetera. It brings clarity and rest. With that I mean an electrician doesn't have to care about what happens in the warehouse, and the warehouse guys will get their schedules from yet another person so they'll know what is coming.

On a more global level, most employees don't decide long term goals, or have to make important decisions. At every place I worked, people like to complain about their superiors, and sure they would have done everything different and better. But realize that the privilege of making decisions also brings responsibility. Firing people, disconnecting emotions when taking critical steps, getting well informed when choosing between A and B, and being unpopular whenever your decision hurts another. Unless true idiots are in charge, we should just be happy we have chiefs and bosses doing all that stuff for us.

But, as said, that's not how Valve works. They call their organization structure "flat". You don't have a boss, nor can you boss another. Instead, you could ask. "Would you kindly like to help me, drawing Alyx Vance naked?". Now if another artist thinks that's an excellent idea, you will likely get your help without having to force another. Valve does things in an organic way. A more natural way. Vice versa, you join (sub)projects whenever and wherever you think you are needed. To stimulate this, all the desks at the Valve office have wheels. You can move your desk elsewhere anytime. The idea is that small project teams or co-operations will naturally sprout (and also dissolve), as people with a shared interest cluster together. Remember, no chief is telling you where to help. You could drive your desk into the boiler room, lock the door, and work there for the rest of your career. Or move it to the massage or catering. Valve does everything to ensure their employees are comfortable and in top shape. Uh, mental shape, Gabe Newell isn't the best sportsman example...

The crisis may have snapped good intentions, but (in civilized countries) there still is a trend of increasing flexibility and caring about employees. My grandpa had to lift heavy bricks on a rotten wooden ladder at the age of 12, nowadays days we're too fat. So companies carefully started investing a little bit in bicycles, healthy food in the canteens, or offering discounts for the local gym. Both companies I work for, organize all kinds of events once in a while. Barbeques, fishing trips, sports lessons, drinking beer, and... more drinking beer. Just to relax and get along with your colleagues. The "company" isn't pure capitalism anymore. Chiefs feel the urge and importance to invest in health, a good atmosphere, friendships, and individual development. Not in the first place because they are much better people now, but because it pays back. If the company cares about its employees, its employees will care about the company.

Valve takes this a step further. Did I say massage? Valve also has a gym, and organizes company vacations to places like Hawaii. Those aren't some wild rumours, it all stands literally in the handbook. Another bidding you won't see in most handbooks, is to avoid overtime. Doing some extra "crunch-time" happens of course, certainly when a release is nearing. But Valve encourages its employees to take their rest, spend time with their families, and enjoy other stuff. How different is that from, for example the banking world, where young roosters have to prove themselves by working 24 hours a day?

I don't how wealthy Valve is, but all this Yoga Zen stuff may sound a bit overdone. Aren't they pushing this permissive, “out-of-the-box” thing too far? You may remember the "Internet Bubble" 15 years ago. Surfing on the upcoming internet, IT companies grew like weeds and made too much money. Even the Mexican cleaning woman would get an expensive company car, and the creative minds would go golfing or lay on purple skippyballs, brainfarting/doing nothing the whole day. Of course, that was too good to be true, and most of the weed died again as the bubble popped. This world is made on sweat, blood and hard labour, not on pleasure with purple Skippyballs.

Nevertheless, I think the "caring company" is a good trend. On Sundays, I really never go to bed with that "sigh, tomorrow work" feeling. I don't count the last 60 minutes, and when doing overtime (sometimes till past midnight), nobody protests. People here are proud on the products we make, and we don't leave the customer until the mighty machine roars and thunders again. That's royalism, but also just having fun and honour in our work.

Black Mesa Anarchy
Obviously, the open, “anarchy” structure Valve applies, heavily relies on royal and motivated people. Hiring a new person and directly giving him or her the same powers and mandate as any other (Gabe Newel included!), is risky. This strategy is based on tons of trust and courage. I've trained and guided a couple of people, and my natural (father) response is to hold their hands. Not with everything, they can pee themselves, but I want to make sure they understand everything and do a good job before I remove the handcuffs. And even after that, I'll keep interfering and reviewing their work, just to make sure everything goes as planned. Probably this happens more or less at Valve just as well, but basically it's in contradiction with the "flat organization". As long as I guide another, telling him what (not) to do, I'm more or less his superior. And even if I wasn't on paper, people like to dominate where they can.

Since we aren't robots, characters differ. Some work hard, some talk hard, some are natural born leaders, others are introvert, and yet some others are just assholes. How does Valve make sure the team doesn't get ruined by lazy employees, dominant personnel, or two captains that want to steer the boat in opposite directions? In a traditional company, higher ranked personnel can overrule and eventually throw out people that are a threat to the “flow”. As for Valve, the Handbook says no-one has ever been fired because of "mistakes". Instead they encourage you to learn from it. Very mature, but... unless they eat mushrooms in that canteen every day, there just have to be struggles and fires. Just looking at myself, I'm a kind person but I don't like to get steered into directions I wouldn't have chosen. Once I've put my heart and soul into something, I'm a diesel locomotive and you'd better not stop me.

To avoid group struggles and "Bold & Beautiful" soaps, Valve has tricks to keep the harmony. But before that, Valve filters out "mediocre" personnel by demanding high standards, of course. Two year Minecraft experience won't bring you there. Then again, it's kinda strange, as every employee is supposed to hire new people. As said before, they don't have a specific recruit team. If I like to hire my grandma, I can just do that. But that may lead to cronyism… Let's say grandma isn't such a good sound effect composer after all, but I'm too proud to admit my mistake and I love grandma... now what? Me and grandma drive our desks to a different corner, and there you have it; group rupture.

Halflife3 concept art? Halflife2 - episide 3 concept art? Fake fan art? Who shall say.

Well, I won't be surprised if stuff like this actually happens. Me and grandma leave the company, the rest of the team absorbs the shockwave and learns from it. And maybe it should be noted that Valve probably has financial space to let this happen. In fact some competition can be healthy. But to avoid drama, they have yet again quite unique ways to reduce this. First, with the flat-organization, everyone cares about the end-product. Unlike a cat-food factory, people don't work here just because they have to make a living. Everyone here wants to release Left for Dead, Portal, STEAM, ... not so sure about Half life 3 though, but you get the point. Nancy sleeps at work or spits puke in cat-food cans, because she doesn't care about the end-product. Only the high chiefs drive big cars and take the medals, she will never get further than the length of the conveyor belt she is working at. Others won't correct Nancy neither, because they only care about getting the hell out of there at 5 รณ clock, and the monthly pay check. Valve on the other hand makes its employees feel important. Or actually they ARE equally important. So by doing stupid things, you will hurt *your* product, and this yourself and your team directly.

Second, besides making software, hiring other individuals is your most important job at Valve. And one particular guideline is to look for people that are "stronger than you". As written above, it's natural to hire a lower-powered employee. Somebody that is skilled and useful, but just slightly less cool than you, so you can boss him around. Otherwise that new guy could become competition, and steal your promotion to a higher rank. But hey... at Valve the hierarchy is gone, so being boss or getting "bossed" can’t really happen anyway. What matters is making an awesome game, so the better people you can find, the better your chances.

Third, they have a "Stack Ranking" system. If you thought for a moment that Valve is a surreal communistic fabric where everyone thinks, does, and earns the same, you're wrong. Your compensation depends on the judgement from the group. Once in a while, every person is judged by the group. How nice is he? How good are his skills? Any unique talents we certainly can't miss? How effective, how much people did (s)he hire, et cetera. If you act like a jerk, or won't come any further than the massage salon, you can expect a low rank and thus a lower salary. Also getting help from others for your personnel projects will become difficult if people don’t like to follow you. Doing your stinking best will pay off, clearly. And unlike normal companies, you don't have to go on your knees, beg your chief for a few extra dollars, getting laughed at, and then get fired.

“Valve Time”

Finally, why isn’t every company adapting this approach? The “Valve approach” sounds awkward and full of pitfalls at first, but the more you think about, the more sense it makes. And hey, they exists for almost 20 years now, grew from ~10 to more than 300 men, made some of the very best PC games out there, and are capable of funding company vacations to Hawaii. They must be doing something right!

Besides passion, most people want to promote or start their own business to A: get rich (or die trying), B: be in charge of another(feels good), C: avoid doing orders somebody else decided. Or in other words: Egoism. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way, ambitions are healthy. But these motivations can collide with the “Valve approach”. You’ll have to accept you won’t be the richest, most powerful and superstar of the company. Or at least not automatically. I’m afraid that is something most egos can’t handle.

In a more practical sense, I don’t think it would work for more conventional business, like say, the Catfood factory. When making games, everyone in the team has to be skilled and smart. Whether you’re programming, drawing or writing plots. The catfood factory on the other hand doesn’t require (expensive!) professors behind the conveyor belt. That makes the intellectual gap too big to let the conveyor girls or handymen involve in *everything* the company is supposed to do. Read *everything* because there is no partial 50% Valve approach. Either every employee is equal to everyone else, or (s)he isn’t. Nothing in between.

Last but not least, “Valve Time” is out of the question for most companies. If we sell cars, we can’t suddenly change our mind and start making bikes instead, or tell the client “no clue” when he asks when his car is done. “Valve Time” is the equivalent of the infamous “When it’s done” phrase 3D Realms used to “answer” when Duke Nukem Forever would be finished. In other words, they didn’t know. Valve frankly admits they are terrible at making predictions or long term plans. For us consumers, it’s hard to bear that we still don’t know when (and if!) Half life 3 says daylight. But after reading through their handbook, it makes a lot sense why they can’t do predictions or promises. Since their decision making works like liquid, it could flow any direction. If I would join Valve and convince them to make Tower22, it may shove Half life 3 back into the fridge… hmmm… brings me on an idea…

But! Don’t worry too much. At least it’s not laziness or inexperience that’s giving hold ups. The thought that even their handbook reads away like an exciting comic book, comforts me. Can’t believe I’m saying that, as I couldn’t care less about business management on school. Too abstract, too much words from people that never made their hands dirty, too little action. But as for Valve… You got to admit, they are damn creative and therefore I have good hopes for Half life 3 (or whatever they come up with).

All right. One more funny fact then. Look at the end-credits (above, or from any Valve game). See anything suspicious? How about the "Programmers", "Lead artists", "Animators", "Funny men", "..." sections? It's just a single alphabetically sorted list. Do you know why? Because no-one has a title at Valve, everyone is just a "designer".


  1. Had no idea about this. How can you make a game without any release date and not bankrupt...boggles my mind.

  2. Valve had some cheat codes to make their flat organisation work :

    1) Gabe Newell was a millionaire BEFORE founding Valve, as he worked at the early Microsoft before. They could restart the whole Half Life develoment when they figured out the game was shit and had to be redone! How much game studios can do this in these days?
    2) Valve owns Steam which is basically the first decent online store for video games. They were not particulary creative by doing that, they just had the chance to be the first to come up with the idea.
    That gave them a position of leader on the online game platforms market and now they just have gazillions of dollars coming up without releasing any games, just maintaining the platform up. Other people make games for them to sell!

    They don't have to create games anymore. If they release a game, it's just for the fun, because they have the MONEY to allow a flat hierarchy, which motivates people and make them create amazing video games.

    We were all amazed by this handbook when they release it to the public, but to my mind, their scheme is neither feasible everywhere, nor productive everywhere.

  3. I wonder if they applied this organization structure already before their first big success (Half life 1), or after gaining some "momentum" (HL1, HL2, Steam, ...). Having containers with money of course helps and allows this somewhat experimental approach. But from the bits I've seen, it seems they always did it this way, which is a brave move to say the least.

    Indeed it won't work out very well for companies that are either too big, too varied (in different skill-levels and professions of employees), have a tight budget, or heavily depend on time/service boundaries. So... that sums up 99% of the companies probably.

    Nevertheless, I find their way intruging. It introduces a lot risks and pitfalls, but also beats a lot of shortcomings in more traditional business. People not caring, people ashamed or unmotivated to share ideas, misuse of powers, over/underpayment, bureaucracy, et cetera.