valveValve is well-known for its counterintuitive corporate culture, one in which bosses don’t exist and employees are encouraged to take big risks without consult. It’s helped the 17-year-old Bellevue company become one of the top game makers around.

But one ex-Valve developer says that the unique structure certainly has some glaring downsides.

In an interview on The Grey Area podcast, Jeri Ellsworth said that Valve’s company structure actually involves a “hidden layer of powerful management” that “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,” she said. “Everyone in between is O.K., but the trouble makers are the ones trying to make a difference.”

Jeri Ellsworth
Jeri Ellsworth

Ellsworth, who led Valve’s hardware division and was let go during a flurry of layoffs in February, spoke about a “weird paranoia” in the company of employees tainting Valve’s culture that ultimately led to a “witch hunt” in February to “remove undesirables.”

Her departure left Ellsworth feeling like she got “stabbed in the back.”

“If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. I am really, really bitter,” she said on the podcast. “They promised me the world and then stabbed me in the back.”

Ellsworth also touched on the struggles of her hardware team and problems with communication within the company. You can listen to the entire interview, which is broken up into six parts, here.

Valve’s culture of innovation and experimentation was highlighted last year when its now famous “Handbook for New Employees” leaked out, a manifesto of sorts in which employees were told that “this company is yours to steer.”

Valve’s Greg Coomer spoke at last year’s Seattle Interactive Conference and offered some interesting insight into how exactly the company makes big decisions when there’s little structure and “nobody is checking your work.”

“The actual career growth in an environment like Valve’s is incredibly accelerated and it is something that allows people to make progress exactly limited only by their own desire and ability,” he said last year. “When you spend time at Valve, you are enormously empowered and you grow a lot faster than if you were following a more traditional path.”

This is certainly a critical time for Valve, a company of over 300 employees that is diving into the hardware world with its planned “Steam Box,” a PC designed to connect to your TV and take advantage of the Steam’s Big Picture mode.

H/T Develop

Previously on GeekWire: Valve co-founder Gabe Newell: Linux is a “get-out-of-jail free pass for our industry”

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  • Really Geekwire

    Is airing this sort of personal dirty laundry really worthy of a Geekwire article?

    • scott

      Really. Can’t they just print the valve press releases as they are given?

  • Taylor Soper

    Listen! Do you smell something?

    • Taylor Soper

      Just to be sure, that “Taylor Soper” isn’t me :)

  • slaggggg

    So a person that Valve let go because she doesn’t match the culture the want, complains that she doesn’t like the culture. Seems like sour grapes and it’s hard not to see her as a whiner who couldn’t succeed. I wonder if this woman realizes just how much harder it will be for her to get a job in the future after doing this piece – it’s a small town and burning bridges never helps.

    • scott

      When a company promotes itself by its lord of the flies culture, even offering a pdf of its culture guide for others, it invites discussion. If they cant take it, or any one of these trolls, they need to get to get their floaty toys and get out of the pool during the adult swim.

  • balls187

    Who cares? I want HL2 Ep3

  • Odd

    Is it me, or does anyone else think it’s odd that Jeri maintains a wikipedia page about herself?

  • margaretbartley

    I worked for eight years in a company that had a flat management structure, and if it’s not implemented properly, it can be a real problem. It is what is referred to as “The tyranny of structurelessness”, and comes about because not everyone has the same level of dedication to process and management.

    Not everyone has the same level of creativity, of being able to see the horizon, outcomes, dependencies. Not everyone has the same level of critical assessment and logical analysis and ability to persuade others. Not everyone has the same amount of time and energy to commit to the job.

    What ends up happening is an informal, unaccountable leadership emerges that cannot be dealt with because it is unacknowledged, but is powerful nonetheless. If those people are altruistic and wise, it’s not a problem. If they are petty or selfish, it can be a big problem.

  • ollie

    Hmmm…a “bitter” ex employee thinks he was “stabbed in the back” and then has nothing but good things to say about the former employer. I think I’ll safely assume that they are an “ex” employee because they were so valuable to the company that they decided to keep them. Oh wait, what does “ex” employee mean again?

  • ollie

    Seeing that they have been in business for 17 years and appear to still be viable, I’ll take it they they know what they are doing and recognized someone who they simply no longer needed or wanted. It happens. Move on. If you really have any value, you will have no problem finding a new job. I wonder of she supports the 15 dollar minimum wage at this point? lol

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