In a video interview, Valve’s former head of hardware, Jeri Ellsworth describes and critiques the Seattle-based developer’s working environment, calling it “a lot like High School.”
“There are popular kids that have acquired power,” she adds, “then there’s the trouble makers, and then everyone in between. Everyone in between is ok, but the trouble makers are the ones trying to make a difference.”
In her role Ellsworth was tasked with building a team focused on hardware and in the video chat she expounds on the frustrations of the job. “I was struggling trying to build this hardware team and move the company forward. 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.”
“I shouldn’t say the numbers, but there were very few of us in the hardware department,” she says. “We were understaffed by about a factor of 100.”
Ellsworth also outlines a “weird paranoia in the company that their culture would be contaminated.”
Valve has become known for its unusual working environment, detailed with glorious literary verve in the “employee handbook” which was leaked last year. Ellsworth addresses the book, stating that it “offers a very idealised view. A lot of that is true. It is a pseudo-flat structure, where in small groups at least in small groups you are all peers and make decisions together.”
She believes Valve’s model is a good one, however, but that scale is the issue: “Their structure probably works really well with about 20 people, but breaks down terribly when you get to a company of 300 people. Communication was a problem… If I had anything to do differently, would be to make sure a layer of management could do communication correctly.”
Ellsworth left the company during a round of widely-reported, surprise lay-offs, in February.