Valve is a company is one that I respect a lot for the agency they give their employees. Feels very much like a metalabel where you have a bunch of highly agentic people working on things they wanna work on rather than a company.
TLDR; hire well
This book is an abbreviated encapsulation of our guiding principles. As Valve continues to grow, we hope that these principles will serve each new person joining our ranks.
Some highlights from their handbook:
Facts that matter
- Valve is self-funded: gives agency to the org to work on work they care about and that customers care about
- Valve owns all of their IP: agency to make their own decisions about what they do with their products
Flatness necessarily implies high responsibility for the individual
Adding individuals then (hiring), is one of the most important things people have control over at the company:
“If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that sounds like a lot of responsibility,” you’re right. And that’s why hiring is the single most important thing you will ever do at Valve”
Flatness also means more mobility. Why does your desk have wheels? Think of those wheels as a symbolic reminder that you should always be considering where you could move yourself to be more valuable.
People move frequently; there is no organizational structure keeping you from being in close proximity to the people who you’d help or be helped by most
Flatness implies anyone has the power to green-light projects. So how does Valve choose what projects to prioritize?
- Employees vote on projects with their feet (or desk wheels)
- Strong projects are ones in which people can see demonstrated value; they staff up easily.
How should I as an individual choose what to work on? A few good guiding questions:
- Of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on?
- Which project will have the highest direct impact on our customers? How much will the work I ship benefit them?
- Is Valve not doing something that it should be doing?
- What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most?
How do people discover new projects? There is no central ‘board’, but the best way to find out about projects is to just ask people.
Lots of people at Valve want and need to know what you care about, what you’re good at, what you’re worried about, what you’ve got experience with, and so on. And the way to get the word out is to start telling people all of those things.
People first frictionful onboarding!
- Team leads
- This person’s role is not a traditional managerial one. Most often, they’re primarily a clearinghouse of information.
- They’re keeping the whole project in their head at once so that people can use them as a resource to check decisions against. The leads serve the team, while acting as centers for the teams.
- There is still structure
- Project teams often have an internal structure that forms temporarily to suit the group’s needs.
- This is dynamic on scales of months to years, but gives some semblance of expectation and stability on the day-to-day.
- For the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication. If this happens at Valve, it’s a sign that something needs to be reevaluated and corrected (of course, there are exceptions like when a project nears ship date)
If we’re not careful, these traits can cause us to race back and forth between short-term opportunities and threats, being responsive rather than proactive. So our lack of a traditional structure comes with an important responsibility. It’s up to all of us to spend effort focusing on what we think the long-term goals of the com- pany should be.
- Someone told me to (or not to) work on X. And they’ve been here a long time!
- They aren’t always right! Hold on to your goals if you’re convinced they’re correct. Check your assumptions. Pull more people in. Listen. Don’t believe that anyone holds authority over the decision you’re trying to make.
- I constantly feel behind with everything going on! How do I make my work feel sustainable?
- Trust us, this is normal. Nobody expects you to devote time to every opportunity that comes your way. Instead, we want you to learn how to choose the most important work to do.
- How does Valve as an organization decide what to work on?
- We believe in each other to make these decisions, and this faith has proven to be well-founded over and over again.
- We have learned that when we take nearly any action, it’s best to do so in a way that we can measure, predict outcomes, and analyze results.
- Can I be involved with X?
- Yes. You either
- Start working on it
- Start talking to all the people who you think might be working on it already and find out how to best be valuable
- Yes. You either
Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait of the company— we couldn’t expect so much of individuals if we also penalized people for errors.
There are still some bad ways to fail.
- Repeating the same mistake over and over is one.
- Not listening to customers or peers before or after a failure is another.
- Never ignore the evidence; particularly when it says you’re wrong.
When everyone is sharing the steering wheel, it seems natural to fear that one of us is going to veer Valve’s car off the road.
Concepts discussed in this book sound like they might work well at a tiny start-up, but not at a hundreds-of-people-plus- billions-in-revenue company. The big question is: Does all this stuff scale?
Well, so far, yes. And we believe that if we’re careful, it will work better and better the larger we get. This might seem counterintuitive, but it’s a direct consequence of hiring great, accomplished, capable people.
In the mean- time, here are some questions we always ask ourselves when evaluating candidates:
- Would I want this person to be my boss?
- Would I learn a significant amount from them?
- What if this person went to work for our competition?
We want people who are integral to high-bandwidth collaboration. People who can
- deconstruct problems on the fly
- talk to others as they do so
- simultaneously being inventive, iterative, creative, talkative, and reactive
We care about T-shaped people: people who are both generalists (highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things—the top of the T) and also experts (among the best in their field within a narrow discipline—the vertical leg of the T).
An expert who is too narrow has difficulty collaborating. A generalist who doesn’t go deep enough in a single area ends up on the margins, not really contributing as an individual.
Things to improve
Things Valve wishes they were better at
- Helping new people find their way
- Mentoring people
- Disseminating information internally
- Finding and hiring people in completely new disciplines
- Making predictions longer than a few months out
- We miss out on hiring talented people who prefer to work within a more traditional structure (isn’t something we should change, but it’s worth recognizing as a self-imposed limitation)