Ex-Valve employee exposes ‘high school clique’ management structure

Monday, 8 July 2013 11:24 GMT By Dave Cook

Valve’s famously flat management structure is being controlled by a group of hidden ‘high school cliques’, according to former head of the company’s hardware division Jeri Ellsworth. The hacker was let go from Valve in February as part of 25 redundancies at the company.

At the time the round of lay-offs triggered speculation as to what was happening at Valve, and prompted Ellsworth to confirm her firing on Twitter.

In the Grey Area Podcast above, Ellsworth said that the ‘clique’ minority led a witch hunt across the company to remove ‘undesirables’ from the company, which resulted in redundancies. Part one of six is above. Hit the link to see all six parts of the discussion.

On her experience in the hardware team, Ellsworth said, “Now we’ve all seen the Valve handbook, which 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. 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. And it 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. 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.

“I shouldn’t say the numbers, but there were very few of us in the hardware department. We were understaffed by about a factor of 100.”

The witch hunt was said to be sparked by what Ellsworth called a ‘weird paranoia’ that came from the cliques fearing that their culture would become contaminated by certain employees.

Ellsworth added that her experience is not reflective of all departments in Valve and stressed that this was purely in her own experience.

What do you make of Ellsworth’s claims and her firing earlier this year? Let us know below.

Thanks Develop.


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  1. bitsnark

    “Ellsworth said that the ‘clique’ minority led a witch hunt across the company to remove ‘undesirables’”

    That sounds like how GAME stores used to be run circa 2003-2009.

    More politically fueled, spineless back-stabbings than an et tu Brute festival.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Dave Cook

    @1 Agreed. I used to work at Game too, and those ‘friendly’ with management got the best jobs / promotions over those who actually worked hard. Fucking disgrace so it was.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Hirmetrium

    Recent talk has said that this women is being rather unfair. She apparently walked out of Valve WITH THE TECH SHE WAS DESIGNING handed over to her. It literally does not get better than that. She is full of scorn and hatred for what has to be one of the best moves by an employer ever.

    The Reddit thread seems to confirm that at least.

    I dunno, she just seems to be a bit sore from being fired from the dream job. And that everyone thought her ideas weren’t as good as the other persons.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Kyle Jackson

    @2 So get friendly with management then, network man!

    #4 2 years ago
  5. NeoSquall

    Butthurt much, that’s how she sounds to me.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. macromanjr

    While I certainly don’t doubt there is truth in the bulk of her claims, frankly, I don’t really see anything here worthy of going to the public about.

    I’m sure there are some inner politics of “cliques” and control issues in the workplace at Valve, but guess what? You’ve just described overall the majority of workplaces everywhere in general.

    Regardless of business structure, these sort of problems of management politics and social “cliques” exist with pretty much any corporation out there. Anywhere human nature exists, expect these issues.

    To me, she sounds like she’s just sore and wanting some attention from her affair.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Myth

    Valve is an interesting experiment in alternate management strategies – which is corporate speak for “how the fuck has that not crashed and burned already?”

    Valve might very well be the latest example of a company that has produced hits so big that the normal rules of finance stopped applying to them because their income is insane.

    Blizzard started finding out the other side of that lollipop recently – but Valve’s dominance probably has more longevity with the Steam framework.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Myth

    @6 It’s different here because Valve’s organizational structure is unlike any other company. With a completely flat (not just flat, but completely flat) organizational structure, cliques is a real problem.

    If you have cliques in a traditional organization, it’s still someone’s defined responsibility to get stuff done – in Valve, there’s no such structure and no one with an assigned responsibility… so cliques matter a ton more in a place like Valve.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. Blue Oni

    Wow she is both pretty and incredibly smart.That’s a killer combination. :)

    As for what she said i don’t think that just one POV is enough to judge the situation properly.Still even if it is exactly as she says then it’s good that she no longer works for them.There are plenty of other companies out there.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. absolutezero

    ^What in the name of fuck?

    #10 2 years ago
  11. Telepathic.Geometry

    @1 and 2: I think you”re talking about everywhere really. Neil Gaiman has a really cool Venn diagram on this topic:

    Basically, being easy to get along with/likeable is a valuable skill. Should it be that big a factor? No, of course not, productivity should be king. But that”s reality for ya…

    #11 2 years ago
  12. DSB

    @3 Valve may have done a great thing, but that doesn’t mean the organization itself lives up to those ideals.

    The whole purpose of a flat structure is to further innovation by inspiring personal investment in the projects you do, so if that flat structure is in fact full of bumps and creases, that’s obviously a problem.

    And it doesn’t exactly sound unlikely to anyone who has ever been a part of an organization of any size, but the big difference here is that it’s counter-productive to what that entire management model is meant to do.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. Blue Oni


    #13 2 years ago
  14. Stardog

    Valve are a joke of a company. Steam is terrible, Greenlight even worse, and their games output in the last 10 years has been minimal.

    Changes are required.

    #14 2 years ago
  15. Hybridpsycho

    She seem dumb anyways : 3

    Also, fuck Valve

    #15 2 years ago
  16. SplatteredHouse

    “there were very few of us in the hardware department”

    Doesn’t that speak a lot to Valve’s level of interest in the supposed “Steambox”. There was speculation, when the first franchised Piston was revealed, that Valve saw a Steam box as just a profit concept to be sold on. Then, of course, the first one does come out and they essentially disowned it right at birth!…
    “understaffed”. And then the head of the department’s laid off.

    @14 Greenlight: Gabe Newell made a lot of noise (not so much recently) about his dissatisfaction with the mechanics of that process; yet, little has been altered. They have made adjustment to the frequency of entrants, but nothing to change in the selection or anything else.

    #16 2 years ago
  17. DSB

    @16 That would be interesting if true, but she also says that they’re very sensitive about PR, so would Newell really be going out there touting the Steambox as the bane of modern consoles if he wasn’t banking it in a big way?

    I don’t know, to me the Steambox is like a unicorn. It would be so fucking amazing if it actually existed.

    (I’m really not that into unicorns though, it’s just an expression.. Maybe)

    #17 2 years ago
  18. SplatteredHouse

    Steam’s the profit part; the thinking would be that they’d just have someone else make and promote the box, in order that Steam meets TVs in a more convenient (for users), and bigger way.

    #18 2 years ago
  19. TheBlackHole


    The main difference being that Valve are not scaling up inline with their revenue intake (outside of a new office in Europe).

    #19 2 years ago
  20. Erthabutt

    @SplatteredHouse It doesnt mean anything for the ‘steambox’.

    She was working on AR, and if you keep checking Abrash blablabla in Valve time, you’ll see that they keep working on virtual stuff.

    It is even said there that AR was not the way to go, so they terminated that department. It seems this guy won his idea in the company over hers.

    If you can be bothered to search it on google, here…

    #20 2 years ago
  21. TheBlackHole

    The Steambox is going to be a Linux based console with no ability to play non-linux steam library games.

    In other words, a really, really frickin’ hard sell.

    #21 2 years ago
  22. Erthabutt

    @21 meh. like any other console. They probably will have good points to sell it, they are smarter than you think.

    #22 2 years ago
  23. salarta

    I’d say everything she’s saying makes perfect sense for issues present at Steam.

    The system works by peer review to decide if certain departments and employment should remain, yes? And she was hired in early 2012, only to be fired a mere year later along with the rest of her team?

    he was hired on, hyped up and encouraged to work her hardest and push for all she could along with the rest of her team. She tried to hire on more staff to help her work on the hardware, because even with how hard they were working they still needed a bigger team, only to end up with all attempts rejected.

    Think about that for a moment. There were only five people working on these hardware capabilities, over the course of only one year. Do you see that happen to video game developers making AAA games? Do they get only one year to complete their very first project with almost no staff to speak of and then lose their contract with the publisher if they can’t deliver something on par with games made in two years staffed by hundreds of people?

    The concept of peer review sounds nice, but unfortunately it’s not a sound idea for Valve. Peer review is an academic based concept, in which people with experience in the field of study look over and judge the work of their colleagues. Typically, though not always, this is done with experts from various institutions specifically because sticking to one institution can easily result in bias. If nothing else, there’s a hypothetical risk that as they all work at the same company, someone could have spread a rumor about Ellsworth’s hardware team, the people on the peer review group could have heard it and had it color their decision, and thus goes the team.

    Ellsworth also points out that there’s a very real problem in Valve’s strategy that dissuades risk-taking and essential development. There are some critical and worthwhile jobs that aren’t going to bear fruit with just one year of preliminary work, and others that aren’t flashy or spectacular but get important jobs done that people take for granted. For example, nobody’s going to regularly say things like “that janitor did a great job taking out the trash,” but it’s an important function nonetheless. If anything, what happened to Ellsworth shows that the reality of the company isn’t truly “flat management,” but tiered by perceived importance of various projects to the company. Any attempt at making everyone “equals” and “peers” has ultimately failed as a result of project prioritization, regardless of if it’s on paper or in the minds of the employees themselves.

    The one plus here I can say is that Gabe seems pretty reasonable. I’m betting a lot of people out there would respond to Ellsworth’s request for having the project released to her with “You did the work for the company and received payment for the work you did, it’s company property, go away.”

    #23 2 years ago
  24. wildBoar

    So I looked at the banner picture.. The left one.
    All sympathy evaporated like a raindrop in a crematorium. My new conviction is that she simply was incompetent and that no one had enough fucks to give to entertain her bad ideas.
    Though I may be slightly biased.

    #24 2 years ago
  25. KineticCalvaria

    @2, kinda sounds like every job, ever. It’s exactly the same in my job to be honest and I work in care!

    #25 2 years ago
  26. Hellhound30x

    UGH!!!! Pinball? Beefcake? Jerkboy friend? Romantic encounter at Pinball tournament??? BLEH! BLEH! BLEH! BLAH!!! SO FUCKING BORING!

    #26 2 years ago
  27. For Blood

    She is just your typical woman. Boyfriend (Valve) breaks up with girlfriend (chick), girlfriend spreads rumors about boyfriend as revenge.

    #27 2 years ago
  28. salarta

    @27: … Or, she was a very enthusiastic employee that was implored to put her all into a project, led to believe hard work and effort would shine out, only to get fired in spite of everything she did.

    That, or you’re just your typical man, someone shares something that bothered them and you just ignorantly grunt because you have no idea what emotions are or how you can eat or have sex with them. :P

    #28 2 years ago
  29. For Blood


    Having no emotion is a good thing. Too much emtion causes someone to not know how to function as a member of society I.E. helicopter parenting. You always must remain detatched to fully function in any situation. As I said in another topic I have known more people that have died than years I have been alive and I am 27. At a certain piint you realize, yeah it sucks that someone dies, but you get over it real quickly and continue to function. Some people who never experience loss just shut down forever because they were never taught how to deal with it. In this case this chick lost her job and then badmouthed her former employers which could cost her future jobs. Instead she should just keep quiet and move on.

    #29 2 years ago
  30. salarta

    @29: Having no emotion is a bad thing, but it’s very tempting when faced with terrible things and does a very good job of hiding the damage it does. That’s not what we’re here to talk about, though. Ellsworth cared about her work and the work of the team she was with, which is important to any profession. Even if you disregard emotion completely, what happened to her sends a message that the structure at Valve is not conducive to creating and supporting the kind of dreamers and innovators that built the computer industry.

    For some reason, people are not noticing or acknowledging that Ellsworth also said a lot of good things about Valve and holds the company as a whole and many of the people that still work there in high esteem. All she did was point out problems caused by the way the company operates that ultimately led to her firing, and how that affected her. She’s hardly cost herself future jobs, aside from maybe ones she wouldn’t want in the first place.

    #30 2 years ago
  31. Tavarish

    Kinda cute to bitch about Valve when they gave her full rights to all tech that she developed while she was employed by them.

    #31 2 years ago
  32. For Blood


    Just because someone says something good but also said something bad does not make it right. The good ole’ saying two wrongs don’t make a right. That is like someone who murdered someone saying, “it’s okay I have given millions of dollars to charity” and the judge letting him go for it.

    #32 2 years ago
  33. salarta

    @31: She complained about an element of the company, the element that led to her project not being able to get its work done fully and ultimately to the whole team getting fired, not the company as a whole.

    @32: That example is fraught with the problem that the example of a good act is not balanced compared to the example of a bad act.

    #33 2 years ago
  34. Tavarish

    @33 Still I find it kinda funny when you consider that as parting gift she got full rights to all tech she developed during hers time in Valve. That is huge gift to get, especially when developed tech has a lot promise in and outside of gaming.

    #34 2 years ago
  35. For Blood


    That WAS the example her saying bad stuff was not diminished by the good stuff she said.

    #35 2 years ago
  36. Erthabutt

    @salarta you’re being silly and the apparent reason is that you and her share the same sex.

    “what happened to her sends a message that the structure at Valve is not conducive to creating and supporting the kind of dreamers and innovators that built the computer industry.”

    Whatever. You’re dreaming.

    #36 2 years ago
  37. nollie4545

    You gotta be kidding me. Comparing GAME to valve?

    Anyway, sounds like employee got fired and now has sour grapes. The end.

    I couldn’t give a monkeys how Valve or any other company is managed or operates. It is down to the company owners and the employees themselves to deal with, not anyone else. If they turn out good shit, I’ll hand over my cash and be happy. If not, then I won’t. That is the crux of it. So they have a terrible management ethos and make people walk the plank at interviews? Well fcuk me, it seems to be doing some good judging by their performance in recent years.

    #37 2 years ago
  38. salarta

    @34: I understand what you’re more or less saying, that she still walked away with a heck of a lot more than many people manage to get when parting with an employer, but I disagree with the line of thought that suggests she can’t be deeply upset by how things turned out and voice those issues. Even if we were to unfairly assume that everything she said was pure exaggeration, a good company would want ex-employees to voice such things so that they can investigate, and if applicable fix any issues to make the company better.

    @35: I know you made your example, I said it’s not proportionate. Anybody can see “I donated millions of dollars to some unknown charity” and “I murdered someone” are not equal; donating millions of dollars isn’t the person bringing someone back from the dead. Your base assertion is accurate, that one good doesn’t cancel out or make up for one bad, but the supposed ‘bad’ here isn’t as bad as people are pretending it is (as in, people are acting like she just said everyone at Valve is an evil bastard when it was never that extreme), and the good is most definitely relevant to a fair understanding of where the ‘bad’ statements are coming from. In criticism, it’s the difference between thinking the critic hates someone with a fiery passion, and knowing they care so much about the person that they’ll be brutally honest.

    @36: So, she has a penis? She lets me come by and try on her ladyparts every now and then? Tell me the nature of this body part sharing between her and I!

    #38 2 years ago
  39. Erthabutt

    @38 Oh so you’re a dude? Doesn’t matter.

    You’re saying a lot of things that aren’t applicable here imo.
    A major portion of Valve thought that AR led them nowhere, and as such they terminated the project. Is that so hard to consider? There’s no problem whatsoever.

    #39 2 years ago
  40. salarta

    @39: It becomes a problem. If so many at Valve had so little faith in the concept of AR that they weren’t going to give it a legitimate chance, then why create a team and get up the hopes of its members that they could have a future with the company on projects they love in the first place? “I have no faith whatsoever in this child I adopted becoming the next Bill Gates, but I’m going to entertain the idea, and if he doesn’t become Bill Gates in a year then I’m sending him back to the orphanage. Oh, and I refuse to pay for education, he should be able to do it all with millions of dollars of equipment but no idea how to put it all together.”

    If they didn’t want to give AR a fair, reasonable chance, then they shouldn’t have wasted their resources or the time and energy of the people they hired pretending they would ever come around to it. And “maybe the people making these decisions changed in the interim” isn’t applicable, because even in such cases, typically professional organizations still give a chance for such groups to prove their worth.

    #40 2 years ago
  41. DSB

    The internet, where speculation turns into fact as long as you repeat it enough times.

    #41 2 years ago
  42. For Blood

    Here is the end of the arguement. No Valve = No Steam. We all know how Steam lets people be creative. She can take the tech elsewhere, so no big loss on her part.

    #42 2 years ago
  43. gargus

    I smell the stench of a woman who complains about working conditions and hierarchies because she was fired. Not being “in the guys crowd”, sexism, racism and so on always come up when a woman gets fired. But it never comes up before she is fired.

    If it was so awful how come she didn’t leave? How come she never said a thing until after she is fired? Instead of vague innuendo where is the proof?

    Its a human nature thing. When someone loses they always search for ways to pin the blame on someone else or make excuses for themselves. Women in particular when it comes to a job do this a lot (men tend to find excuses for their poor behavior in social settings more so).

    She sounds like she wants to be painted as the babe in the proverbial woods that is sweet and innocent and pure of heart being chased by the evil big bad wolf.

    I’m sensing she is leaving a whole lot of context out of things, or not mentioning facts in their entirety.

    But at the end of the day she was in a hardware department. Valve dabbles in hardware but it isn’t a primary concern of theirs. Its like working for a produce company that decides to try their hand at making powertools, you cant be too surprised when they don’t make it work for their business model and end up having to let the guy who designs a power saw go.

    And I hate to break it to her but that’s pretty much how every company works. If you work well with co-workers and management and they like you of course they will promote you. Its called the real world, no need to get butt hurt and act like youre the only person it happens to.

    #43 2 years ago
  44. salarta

    @43: “I smell the stench of a woman who complains about working conditions and hierarchies because she was fired.”

    I didn’t know giants and ogres posted here too!

    First off, from what I saw (I didn’t watch the whole video because can’t spend that much time watching it, but I did read what the Develop article transcribed), she didn’t claim sexism. She didn’t say any of it happened because she’s a woman.

    Sex played no part in her complaints. Bringing that topic up in this case says nothing about this case, only about you.

    Second, I’d say you’re half right and half wrong about “if it was so bad why didn’t she leave.” If it was REALLY bad, like so bad she could file criminal charges for employee mistreatment, then it would make more sense for her to have spoken up before being fired. That’s where you’re half right. Where you’re half wrong is that there are many cases where employees put up with employer abuse when they should not, and because they’re so entrenched in that organization as it is, both not wanting to risk unemployment AND not wanting to risk people like the ones in these comments judging them as a “whiner,” they may put up with poor treatment until they leave or get fired.

    Ellsworth said repeatedly that she was sold the idea that sticking it out and working her hardest would pay off for her, up until the day she was fired. Under those conditions, can you really expect her to complain about Valve while working for them when anyone with a brain knows that doing so could risk being fired? I can guarantee you that if she had done that, then instead of statements like “Why didn’t she complain before she was fired,” we’d see statements like “Well of course she was fired, how stupid do you have to be to complain about your employer while you’re working for them?”

    #44 2 years ago

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