You might have noticed that Valve Software is a company I’m interested in. Turns out that one of the most interesting things about Valve is the way they organize themselves as a company. This blog post (via kottke, haha) by one of their guys who’s working on hardware at the moment serves as a unique look at the recent history of software, through the lenses of id, Microsoft and Valve; as a unique insight into what makes Valve so amazing; and as a very clever piece of viral talent acquisition:

So Valve was designed as a company that would attract the sort of people capable of taking the initial creative step, leave them free to do creative work, and make them want to stay. Consequently, Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.

Now, I can tell you that, deep down, you don’t really believe that last sentence. I certainly didn’t when I first heard it. How could a 300-person company not have any formal management? My observation is that it takes new hires about six months before they fully accept that no one is going to tell them what to do, that no manager is going to give them a review, that there is no such thing as a promotion or a job title or even a fixed role (although there are generous raises and bonuses based on value to the company, as assessed by peers). That it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, to allocate the most valuable resource in the company – their time – by figuring out what it is that they can do that is most valuable for the company, and then to go do it.

Relatedly, Valve’s handbook for new hires has just been (accidentally or otherwise) leaked to the Internet. Inevitably a big chunk at the beginning is spent on explaining how the new employee will know what to do, given that noone will be telling them:

Deciding what to work on can be the hardest part of your job at Valve. This is because, as you’ve found out by now, you were not hired to fill a specific job description. You were hired to constantly be looking around for the most valuable work you could be doing. At the end of a project, you may end up well outside what you thought was your core area of expertise. There’s no rule book for choosing a project or task at
Valve. But it’s useful to answer questions like these:
• 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?

… etc. It sounds kind of awesome, right? But I’m not sure that any company apart from one that creates software can actually work like that. It would be good to find out, although another article I read recently cos   kottke linked to it tells us a fair amount about how Steve Jobs thought about running his companies. The interesting thing about him was that he changed quite a lot over his career. Naturally I guess, because he was very young when he started out and it was only in his second stint at Apple that we saw him as a mature executive. In between times he had run both NeXT and Pixar. At NeXT he had had a structure that sounds quite a lot like Valve’s, where every single employee was expected to have a high-level view of the company’s goals and how they could contribute to them. They also all knew each other’s salaries, which turned out to be a bad thing. I think Pixar was similar, but the important thing about Pixar was that they had the entire company focused on one thing at a time. They just made one movie and put all their effort and energy into making it as good as it could possibly be. That’s definitely something that carried over to Apple, although it has periodically caused challenges as all the effort they put into iOS meant OSX didn’t get quite enough attention for a little while. What’s common to all of them, though, is that everyone there is fully invested in the overall goals of the company. That seems to be really important.

 

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