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Gabe Newell explains Valve's idiosyncrasies in new interview
Gabe Newell explains Valve's idiosyncrasies in new interview
January 3, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

January 3, 2014 | By Alex Wawro
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

"We've essentially crowd-sourced supervision of a lot of [our] decisions to our customers and it works way better than almost any other system we could design. They're rabid, they're passionate, and there are a lot of them."
- Valve CEO Gabe Newell shares his thoughts on the best way to build a company in a new interview published today by the Washington Post.

It's a good read, the first in a two-part series of interviews Newell conducted with Post reporter Andrea Peterson.

In this first one Newell explains why Valve works the way it does, fleshing out some of the logic behind much-publicized idiosyncrasies like the low frequency of game releases or the tendency for employees to move between teams by simply unplugging their workstations and wheeling them around the office.

There's also a good bit of speculation about how the hallmarks of a traditional corporation -- job titles, assigned teams, direct reports -- can actually hamper a video game company's ability to move quickly to address the needs of its fans.

"I think our structure will work better than most of the older command-and-control type hierarchical systems that require a huge amount of shared state between everybody, and move very ponderously, and have to throw away huge amounts of data because otherwise the person at the top can't possibly know what every single person at the organization is doing," said Newell, shortly after confessing that his background in computer science strongly affects the way he approaches designing an effective organization.

It's worth noting that the company's Steam platform has experienced remarkable growth since its launch in 2003. Keep that in mind when you read Newell's anecdote near the end of the interview about the internal debates surrounding Steam's development.

The full first half of the interview, full of interesting examples and explanations from Newell, is available at the Washington Post website.

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Mark Rusich
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As nice as Gabe Newell makes his workplace environment sound, I think that a hierarchy becomes more beneficial when the company grows. Valve has 200 employees, so I'd think that at least some unofficial hierarchy exists, even if it's just a "majority rules" vote within one group under the influence of more prominent individuals, like Gabe Newell.

Alex Covic
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I love the anti-job-title approach to highly (multi-)talented employees. Giving them space to contribute, instead of locking them down.

A job title is a cozy and warm, but also a tight-knit suit, people too many times focus their minds on either fulfilling or not daring to exceed beyond? My old boss used to say: "The good ones (employees) always go" (=do their own thing, eventually). Knowing how to keep them & really profit from them, is a neat trick Gabe & Co. seem to know?

Of course, this approach does not fit all jobs/industries/companies.

Michael Joseph
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"Knowing how to keep them & really profit from them, is a neat trick Gabe & Co. seem to know?"

How about "& really profit WITH them?"

Valve seems to really know how to put the T in team. In comparison "command-and-control type hierarchical systems" seem to bandy about the word team as part of a mass delusion.

Perhaps teammates of real teams don't want to leave. They want to stay and contribute and make the team even better. Real teams overachieve and are successful. It's not to say that you can't load up on a ton of talent and be successful in a traditional hierarchical structure, but retention might be a huge problem as may continuing innovation and adapting to changing conditions.

Real teAm dynamics perhaps mitigates the problem where individuals are more worried about covering their own ass, doing their job and their job only, climbing ladders and competing with their coworkers rather than working together for mutual benefit. And who can blame them? Command-and-control type hierarchical systems are based on a system of distrust (the peons must be tightly managed), unfair compensation, domination of workers (especially non management workers), and job insecurity.

But Valve's structure will never appeal to public corporations because at the very least they wont be willing to address the compensation structure to the point where employees will see themselves as team members and not workers. I think publicly held corporations would sooner go bankrupt than put the everyday employees ahead of shareholders.

Chris OKeefe
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"There's also a good bit of speculation about how the hallmarks of a traditional corporation -- job titles, assigned teams, direct reports -- can actually hamper a video game company's ability to move quickly to address the needs of its fans."

This is ironic, coming from a company that has managed to have a phrase coined based on their slowness to release content. I am not sure that many studios could survive on Valve's peculiarly sparse release schedule.

(I love Valve, but speed and efficiency has never really been their forte)

Still, he may have a point, and I definitely find their particular style of management and development appealing. Plasticity in groups of talented, motivated people can nurture creativity and novel ideas at the cost of frequent tangents and possible developmental limbo, while rigid hierarchical structures can keep less talented/motivated people on a steady work pace but provides less creative room for developers to explore beyond their assigned tasks/positions.

Jed Hubic
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Speed and efficiency of releasing Half Life 3 may not be their forte, but even then you can't judge their efficiency if you don't know the effort involved so far. For a company to become as massive as they have from what they started out as tells me that they know a lot more about efficiency than most companies.

Jesse Tucker
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I haven't felt that Valve's recent efforts have suffered from "Valve Time" - In fact, many people felt that Left 4 Dead 2 came out too quickly after the original. Portal 2 came out in a timely fashion, and progress seems pretty steady on DOTA 2 as well.

Lincoln Thurber
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There have been a number of stories over the past three years about how depressingly caustic the work environment can be at Valve if you are not part of a 'click'. I think Gabe is fooling himself. I think he takes what works for him, then pretends the non-hierarchical side effect -the way his company treats people who are not cutthroat or into high school drama - is okay.

Hands off sounds great, until people who might have been abused all their lives get power and start paying-forward that abuse. When there is not cat, he's not just away, the mice turn into rats.

Michael Joseph
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"Hands off" doesn't mean anarchy with pups starving while the alphas feast. I'm sure there is a certain culture that is promoted that everyone buys into and which forms the basis of the flat organizational structure.

However, I can imagine how people coming from a hierarchical system and entering Valve's unconventional environment may find it difficult. They may feel like a fish out of water and have a hard time breaking away from their previous mentality and expectations of politics, backstabbing, and drama.

They may also need help in problem resolution within a flat structure. In the past they might go to their boss if they had a problem with a co-worker. Perhaps at Valve if you have a problem with a teammate you talk it out directly like two adults. And it doesn't have to feel like a confrontation. I think they'd soon discover that their fellow developers want to help everyone fit in and bring out their best. Maybe "how to communicate and resolve interpersonal problems like a proper adult" would be a beneficial training program.

Bart Stewart
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"Perhaps at Valve if you have a problem with a teammate you talk it out directly like two adults."

Or you do what Valve actually did, which was to allow one person with power to publicly berate a less famous teammate in an audio developer commentary that is included in the actual Portal 2 game itself: .

The Valve organization (a textbook example of what Charles Handy called a Task Culture) sounds blissfully light on bureaucracy. I'm just not sure what it's like to be a normal human being trying to work there among the technical superstars.

But hey, maybe they just don't hire normals at Valve.

Elisabeth Beinke-Schwartz
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" In the past they might go to their boss if they had a problem with a co-worker. Perhaps at Valve if you have a problem with a teammate you talk it out directly like two adults."

Although it's often better if you're having issues to talk to the other person to try to work it out yourselves, there are numerous instances where this doesn't work and a 'higher level' moderator is needed. Say the other person is being a real dick and won't change without repercussions. Or the person does something really offensive/uncomfortable towards the other person and they need that mediator. Even with no 'official' power structure in place, there'll always be people with more/less power either because they have more dominant/submissive personalities and/or they have more connections with others.

Jacek Wesolowski
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There's really no way to tell how things really work at Valve without having actually worked at Valve. There are too many variables. I never worked at Valve (obviously), but I used to work (briefly) for a company that wanted to be like Valve, and thus I've seen firsthand that this approach comes with its own set of challenges.

One advantage of formal decision structure is that you can say: "this is Bob, Bob is a manager, and he's responsible for making sure everyone stays on the same page". In practice this often doesn't work, because too many people think managers and leads are "superiors", i.e. primarily decision-makers and not communicators. However, this is an issue of accountability, and not an inherent problem with having managers or leads. The way we solve it in our team is that we assign jobs to people for the duration of a single project. When the project ends, the job sort of expires.

Another advantage of a formalised structure is that you can say "this is Betty, Betty is a lead designer, and she's responsible for the final quality of our game". A (healthy) decision structure implies a process that defines the criteria and priorities of a team's work. It's easier to have so-called vision when someone is directly responsible for maintaining it.

I'd really like to know what's Valve's solution for these two challenges.