"This book isn't about fringe benefits or how to set up your workstation or where to find source code. Valve works in ways that might seem counterintuitive at first. This handbook is about the choices you're going to be making and how to think about them. Mainly, it's about how not to freak out now that you're here."
Thus begins the opening page of a recently released Valve Handbook For New Employees. A PDF file of the internal document showed up online this week, and man oh man, is it ever fascinating. Through 56 pages, the handbook discusses the studio's unconventional approach to a working environment; an environment seeking to produce great content through employee self-direction. Here are five – of many – amazing things found in the guide.
Apparently, Valve isn't all that comfortable with traditional business hierarchy. According to the handbook, the company is "flat," meaning every single employee has the ability to take on new project ideas and ship them to customers.
"It's our shorthand way of saying that we don't have any management, and nobody 'reports to' anybody else," reads the book. "We do have a founder/president, but even he isn't your manager. This company is yours to steer – towards opportunities and away from risks."
Letting employees take an active role in the company's direction just makes sense. Valve isn't a sausage factory – it makes video games through collaborative effort. Sure, the approach could lead to missteps, but mistakes are also an opportunity to learn.
Valve employees are encouraged to move around from project to project, finding ways to best contribute their particular skill sets for the good of the company and its customers. Mobility isn't just figurative, either; developers actually move their workstations around the office.
"Think of those wheels as a symbolic reminder that you should always be considering where you could move yourself to be more valuable," says the handbook. "There is no organizational structure keeping you from being in close proximity to the people who you'd help or be helped by most."
According to the handbook, Valve doesn't believe the oft lamented "crunch mode" at development studios is actually all that effective. We've all heard the stories about ridiculous working hours – Team Bondi comes to mind – but Valve sees such structure as a sign of inefficiency.
"If this happens at Valve, it's a sign that something needs to be reevaluated and corrected," notes the handbook. "The thing we work hardest at is hiring good people, so we want them to stick around and have a good balance between work and family and the rest of the important stuff in life."
"Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake," the handbook reads. Since the company goes out of its way to ensure a working environment encouraging self-directed employees, one could imagine a few screw-ups rising to the surface. Maybe too many employees invested the lion's share of their time to one project, and the entire thing ended up never shipping, or maybe a new game idea just didn't pan out. Valve isn't in the business, apparently, of reprimanding employees for taking calculated risks.
Of course, that's not to say the company will watch someone make the same mistake time and again. Valve expects its employees to listen to the advice of peers and customers alike, and learn from past goof-ups.
Valve is growing rapidly. Recently, the company has discussed its interest in hardware applications like "wearable computing." Obviously, this requires a heightened level of talent recruitment, and the ideology behind bringing in new employees is integral to the company's goals. Valve isn't just looking for people with a specific skill-set in one area, they need employees who are "T-shaped."
"That is, people who are both generalists (highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things – the top of the T) and also experts (among the best in their field within a narrow discipline – the vertical leg of the T). This recipe is important for success at Valve."
Any developer could learn quite a bit from the success of Valve – a company currently valued at around $3 billion, according to Forbes. If you respect the value of your employees, and treat well (did I mention employees and families are flown to a company vacation each year?), you'll see return on your investment.