The Valve Employee Handbook

The official Valve Employee Handbook for new employees has just hit the Internet, and it's a fascinating read for any Valve fan. There's lots of wonderful insight into how the company runs (no managers, no bosses, do what you think is best!), hiring criteria, how to settle into your new job, and more. The short version is: Valve is employee heaven and you will probably never work there. Some choice quotes:

Valve is self-funded. We haven’t ever brought in outside financing. Since our earliest days this has been incredibly important in providing freedom to shape the company and its business practices.

Valve is flat. It’s our shorthand way of saying that we don’t have any management, and nobody “reports to” anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isn’t your manager. This company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products.

Why does your desk have wheels? Think of those wheels as a symbolic reminder that you should always be considering where you could move yourself to be more valuable. But also think of those wheels as literal wheels, because that’s what they are, and you’ll be able to actually move your desk with them. You’ll notice people moving frequently; often whole teams will move their desks to be closer to each other. There is no organizational structure keeping you from being in close proximity to the people who you’d help or be helped by most.

There are lots of stories about how Gabe has made important decisions by himself, e.g., hiring the whole Portal 1 team on the spot after only half of a meeting. Although there are examples, like that one, where this kind of decision making has been successful, it’s not the norm for Valve. If it were, we’d be only as smart as Gabe or management types, and they’d make our important decisions for us. Gabe is the first to say that he can’t be right nearly often enough for us to operate that way. His decisions and requests are subject to just as much scrutiny and skepticism as anyone else’s. (So if he tells you to put a favorite custom knife design into Counter-Strike, you can just say no.)

Can I be included the next time Valve is deciding X?

Yes. There’s no secret decision-making cabal. No matter what project, you’re already invited. All you have to do is either (1) Start working on it, or (2) Start talking to all the people who you think might be working on it already and find out how to best be valuable. You will be welcomed— there is no approval process or red tape involved. Quite the opposite—it’s your job to insert yourself wherever you think you should be.

While people occasionally choose to push themselves to work some extra hours at times when something big is going out the door, for the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication. If this happens at Valve, it’s a sign that something needs to be reevaluated and corrected. If you’re looking around wondering why people aren’t in “crunch mode,” the answer’s pretty simple. 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.

Sometimes things around the office can seem a little too good to be true. If you find yourself walking down the hall one morning with a bowl of fresh fruit and Stumptown-roasted espresso, dropping off your laundry to be washed, and heading into one of the massage rooms, don’t freak out. All these things are here for you to actually use. And don’t worry that somebody’s going to judge you for taking advantage of it—relax! And if you stop on the way back from your massage to play darts or work out in the Valve gym or whatever, it’s not a sign that this place is going to come crumbling down like some 1999-era dot-com startup. If we ever institute caviar-catered lunches, though, then maybe something’s wrong. Definitely panic if there’s caviar.

Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake. It wouldn’t make sense for us to operate that way. Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait of the company— we couldn’t expect so much of individuals if we also penalized people for errors. Even expensive mistakes, or ones which result in a very public failure, are genuinely looked at as opportunities to learn. We can always repair the mistake or make up for it.

Concepts discussed in this book sound like they might work well at a tiny start-up, but not at a hundreds-of-people-plus-billions-in-revenue company. The big question is: Does all this stuff scale? Well, so far, yes. And we believe that if we’re careful, it will work better and better the larger we get. This might seem counterintuitive, but it’s a direct consequence of hiring great, accomplished, capable people. Getting this to work right is a tricky proposition, though, and depends highly on our continued vigilance in recruiting/hiring. If we start adding people to the company who aren’t as capable as we are at operating as high-powered, self-directed, senior decision makers, then lots of the stuff discussed in this book will stop working.

We value “T-shaped” people. 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).

Empty Shelf on Fifth Floor—Place we’re planning on putting all those awards for Ricochet once the gaming world finally catches up with it.

Gabe Newell—Of all the people at this company who aren’t your boss, Gabe is the MOST not your boss, if you get what we’re saying.