Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

Former Valve Worker Says Weird Paranoia Caused Witch Hunt

By - Source: Develop | B 32 comments

Jeri Ellsworth said the atmosphere at Valve was a lot like high school.

Remember when hardware hacker Jeri Ellsworth was hired on by Valve Software to run a team focused on hardware? She was fired from the company back in February, and the hardware project she was working on was reportedly nuked despite Gabe Newell saying that nothing was canceled. Now she's talking about the atmosphere in the house that Half-Life and Steam built, and in a nut shell, it was a lot like high-school.

"It is a pseudo-flat structure, where in small groups at least in small groups you are all peers and make decisions together," she said. "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."

"There are popular kids that have acquired power, then there’s the trouble makers, and then everyone in between," Ellsworth added. "Everyone in between is ok, but the trouble makers are the ones trying 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 -- because we would be interviewing a lot of talented folks but the old timers would reject them for not fitting into the culture."

She said her team was starved for resources because the company's bonus system kept Valve employees glued to very prestigious projects, bonuses that are larger than what they actually earn. Those people only wanted to work on a sure thing, not something risky like augmented reality. Valve itself wouldn't even hire a machinist to work in the company's new machine shop to build parts for the hardware group.

"We used to joke that it's good at hiring lots of lead guitarists," she said. "We went out and hired lots of great makers - but we were all lead guitarists, we couldn't go out and hire someone just to manufacture the parts. Just getting a tech for around the lab was almost impossible. That's why a layer of management can help organizations."

The hardware team supposedly caused a "weird paranoia" that pushed an external group to lead a witch hunt and "round up all the undesirables and get rid of them." Ellsworth said she was fired for being abrasive, as she kept asking senior staff for help regularly and was frustrated with hitting a brick wall each time. She couldn't deliver any hardware because she couldn't find a way to make a process to actually deliver the goods inside the company.

"The day I got fired I was walking up to the elevator and one of the mechanical engineers said 'Did you hear so-and-so was laid off?' It was someone on our project. I was mad. I hopped in the elevator and went straight up to our team - and I found Rick, and he said 'I was fired. You too.' I couldn't believe it. The handbook said that if you get too far off course they will tell you about it," she said.

The full story is unraveled in a 90 minute Grey Area Podcast, but Develop has transcribed extracts that detail specifically the situation about Valve's hiring and firing methods.

Display 32 Comments.
This thread is closed for comments
Top Comments
  • 56 Hide
    BulkZerker , July 11, 2013 9:26 PM
    If any of this is true this explains why so little gets done at Valve.
  • 35 Hide
    alextheblue , July 11, 2013 10:57 PM
    I'm not surprised. They don't really seem interested in getting shit done anymore - unless making money off other developers via Steam counts. Don't get me wrong, I use Steam. The prices are great. But Valve just seems like they're stagnating internally.
  • 21 Hide
    sparky2010 , July 12, 2013 12:15 AM
    What prestigious projects....? And where are they...?
Other Comments
  • 56 Hide
    BulkZerker , July 11, 2013 9:26 PM
    If any of this is true this explains why so little gets done at Valve.
  • 9 Hide
    Icecweam7 , July 11, 2013 10:29 PM
    All this drama needs to be taken care of asap and get back to focusing on games or that Steam Box. Maybe then the next Half Life game will be released in my lifetime.
  • 35 Hide
    alextheblue , July 11, 2013 10:57 PM
    I'm not surprised. They don't really seem interested in getting shit done anymore - unless making money off other developers via Steam counts. Don't get me wrong, I use Steam. The prices are great. But Valve just seems like they're stagnating internally.
  • 2 Hide
    cats_Paw , July 11, 2013 11:43 PM
    Well, unfortunatelly most jobs are like that. THats why keeping a good job even if its not greatly paid, normally makes people happier than those with great salary but poor conditions.

  • 21 Hide
    sparky2010 , July 12, 2013 12:15 AM
    What prestigious projects....? And where are they...?
  • 1 Hide
    guru_urug , July 12, 2013 12:16 AM
    They really meant it when they named it "half life"
    Thats 2 games in a lifetime :/ 
  • -1 Hide
    sparky2010 , July 12, 2013 12:43 AM
    What prestigious projects....? And where are they...?
  • 2 Hide
    eklipz330 , July 12, 2013 1:14 AM
    that is disappointing to hear. and here i thought valve was the role model developer.
  • 8 Hide
    bustapr , July 12, 2013 1:32 AM
    Quote:
    What prestigious projects....? And where are they...?


    probably that game called "build the best hat".
  • -7 Hide
    The_Trutherizer , July 12, 2013 1:44 AM
    "hidden layer of power" -Translation- "The apparently flat structure appeared like a juice power void where I could insert my fat butt and run my motor mouth, but I was too dumb to realize that any big established company has people with more pull than others". Newsflash: In the real world you gotta get with the program.

    disclaimer: I don't work for Valve, but I have my own experiences as a professional and I got a very distinct sense of the type of person she might be - Just my opinion though of course. But just from the negative reaction I experienced I can imagine she might provoke similar reactions in colleagues. I know it all too well: "Oh look at me! I'm an orphan in the storm! I need attention so bad! IF YOU DO NOT GIVE IT TO ME YOU WILL DIE!"

    Shudder...

    But then... She might be a saint for all I know.
  • 0 Hide
    IQ11110002 , July 12, 2013 2:42 AM
    All that most of us want is Half Life 3, I mean seriously how fkn hard is it for them to understand? Put ALL other projects aside and do HL3, Trust me it will sell if it's anything like the first two games! WAKE UP VALVE.........
  • 1 Hide
    SirTrollsALot , July 12, 2013 2:59 AM
    When you are starving you make good things, when you become a fat cat fakker you loose your direction and don't care much for the minions no more. Hey sounds like typical western society!!! You are all guilty of feeding the trolls!!!!
  • 0 Hide
    Gundam288 , July 12, 2013 3:09 AM
    I'm not that shocked about this to an extent.

    CS:GO's gameplay didn't play/feel like CS IMHO, and now this comes out sometime later. 2+2 people, 2+2.

    I hate to say it, but it sounds like higher ups wanted a bigger bonus or something.
  • 1 Hide
    Achoo22 , July 12, 2013 4:24 AM
    While I wouldn't be shocked to learn that this woman didn't have the social skills and clout to get all the cooperation she needed, I also find it very easy to believe that there are very serious management issues at Valve. All it takes is one attempt at contacting customer service to see that this company doesn't have its priorities straight.
  • 10 Hide
    kinggraves , July 12, 2013 5:23 AM
    Well it's Valve saying "We have no management, everything's fair and about getting things done." That isn't how human beings work. They form social structures themselves, whether or not one is given. High school structures are just that, young people forming basic groupings on simple and easily identified traits. When Valve doesn't give an adult business structure, their employees are left to form their own. When people are given a deciding power, even a minor one, it proves to be corrupting. Someone has to be in charge, and someone in charge is going to always be biased. The problem is when that bias affects the bottom line. Whether or not she's an abrasive person, she is leading a team which has a project that the company is putting it's resources into. If you don't give them the proper resources, it's going to fail and be a net loss for EVERYONE. Good leaders do not let the project fail simply because they don't get along with you. Valve is primarily a software company, if they want to diversify into hardware they are going to have to open their mindsets from what they're used to. If you want to work on hardware you need new staff, machinists and hardware engineers. You cannot put software experts on hardware projects and expect results. This issue reminds me, whatever happened to Valve's "console box"? It wasn't even mentioned for E3 or at all this summer, hype died down shortly after this story broke. I think their hardware plans have fallen apart completely, and if so it's due to a juvenile power structure formed by people who don't want to break the current status quo.
  • -4 Hide
    warezme , July 12, 2013 6:39 AM
    Sounds like maybe she didn't have the skills to create a good productive team. The first thing to have done in that environment of cliquee groups is sweet talk your way into the leader of each one and find out what interests them the most. Then use at least one of their ideas or concepts in parts of your prototype design so that the "team leaders" feel they have a personal hand in the design. It doesn't matter if it gets dropped in the end for whatever reason since it likely wouldn't be your call at that point.
  • 3 Hide
    teh_chem , July 12, 2013 7:04 AM
    I'm not very surprised about this. Everyone heralds Valve for its "flat" working structure, but I always found it entirely perplexing. That just makes it a good place to interview at--you are told there's no real management power structure, and everyone has an equal say/input. But that's terribad for the exact reasons exposed in this piece (which I found very interesting).

    You end up having to deal with personality cliques, people working on things that benefit themselves vs. the company as a whole.

    A flat, seemingly equal structure might sound like a great idea, and I don't discount Valve's great success so-far, but it suffers a lot because a lot of time time average people/workers won't take the risks that generate great things.
  • 0 Hide
    dkcomputer , July 12, 2013 7:39 AM
    This is what happens when people with no business experience make money and think that somehow correlates to business smarts. Running people is not the same as one dude thinking up dota, or a few people developing a game, but I guarantee they're surrounded by yes-men, and who can argue when you're making money? Just ask THQ and EA.
  • 2 Hide
    timaahhh , July 12, 2013 8:16 AM
    Sounds like a typical corporation....
Display more comments