Valve Employee Reveals More About the Company and Why She Left

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Jeri Ellsworth, a former Valve employee, spoke on the grey area podcast and let’s us in on why she left the company. Eurogamer.net also has a nice breakdown of some of the highlights from the podcast.

Basically, it seems to boil down to an infrastructure issue. Valve’s setup seemed to clash with moving forward on her project, which is a virtual reality display that projects onto a surface. However, when she left the company, Valve let her hold onto the project. Ellsworth then formerd her own company Technical Illusions and the project is now officially called CastAR. Her is an old interview regarding the product:

Going back to Ellsworth’s time at Valve, as group hardware designers and programmers, it seemed they needed a machinist to do more the grunt work and assemble their project on the hardware side. As a result she claimed they weren’t granted enough resources and they were denied in their request to hire a $40,000 a year machinist. Here are some excerpts from the interview, which further explains her dilema at the company.

You’ve probably seen the Valve handbook, which is a very idealized view of what Valve is like. A lot of those things are true. It is a pseudo-flat structure, where in small groups 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. And it felt a lot like High School. There are popular kids that have acquired power, then there’s the trouble makers, and then everyone in between. Everyone in between is OK, but then there are the trouble makers who want to make a difference.

I was struggling trying to build this hardware team and move the company forward. We were having a difficult time recruiting folks. We would interview talented people but they would be rejected by the old timers at Valve as not fitting the culture.

I shouldn’t say the numbers, but there were very few folks in the hardware department. We were understaffed by a hundred times for what we needed to do.

What I learned from Valve is I don’t think it works. You give people complete latitude with no checks and balances, it’s just human nature they’re going to try to minimise the work they have to do and maximise the control they have.

In the end Ellsworth did leave on a somewhat positive note, in which she stated that there are still some good folks that she knows at Valve.

I should frame this with, I have a lot of friends at Valve. There are some great people there, especially in the hardware team. We were really close-knit. We were probably the hardest working people in the company.