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Former Valve Worker Says Weird Paranoia Caused Witch Hunt

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.