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Ex-Valve hardware expert shares uncommon look inside the company

July 8, 2013 | By Kris Ligman

July 8, 2013 | By Kris Ligman
More: Console/PC, Production, Business/Marketing, Video

Jeri Ellsworth is a woman with a considerable resume. An entrepreneur and self-taught computer chip designer, she's best known for developing the Commodore 30-in-1 emulator and for her technical articles for building DIY electronics. She was also among Valve's early 2012 hardware hires, but was fired in February of this year.

Now in a new video interview with Jenesee Grey of the Grey Area Podcast (above; beginning at 11:15), Ellsworth paints her former employer in a complicated light, casting doubt on the "flat management" structure Valve boasts, saying that the company is in actuality more hierarchical than it appears.

"I should frame all of this with I have a lot of friends at Valve and there are lots of great people there," Ellsworth says at the outset of the interview. "My view is not one hundred percent true for all the different groups in there."

"We've all seen the Valve handbook, which offers a very idealized view. A lot of that is true. It is a pseudo-flat structure, where in small groups at least... you are all peers and make decisions together."

"But the one thing I found out the hard way is that there is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company."

Ellsworth refers to this 'hidden' management with loaded terms, saying it "felt a lot like high school." "There are popular kids that have acquired power, then there's the troublemakers, and then everyone in between," she continues.

She also states that Valve's then-burgeoning hardware team was vastly undersupported. Because there isn't a lot of 'official' structure, Ellsworth says, employees gravitate toward the most "prestigious" projects, leaving teams like hers "starved for resources."

It was not for lack of money, says Ellsworth. "We had a machine shop with millions of dollars of equipment in it and couldn't hire a machinist for $40,000 a year to manufacture machine parts for it. Because they were worried that bringing in a machinist would hurt their precious culture."

"We were understaffed by about a factor of one hundred," she says. "We were having a difficult time recruiting folks -- because we would be interviewing a lot of talented folks but the old timers would reject them for not fitting into the culture."

Asked if these troubles signal that Valve is pulling out of hardware development, Ellsworth remarks simply, "There were five of us working on this project, and all of us were canned on the same day."

"If I sound bitter, it's because I am," Ellsworth acknowledges. "I am really, really bitter... I don't think [Valve's structure] works. Give people complete latitude with no checks and balances, it is human nature that they will minimize the work that they do and increase the control that they have."

Gamasutra has reached out to Valve for comment but has not yet received a response.

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