Valve is being uncharacteristically candid at the moment – confirming that it’s working on wearable computers, as well as this blog post from Michael Abrash, detailing how he came to work at Valve. It’s well worth a reading in full, but one section stuck out.
He talks about how Valve is organised and the hierarchy within it. Or rather, the lack of a hierarchy:
Consequently, Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.
Now, I can tell you that, deep down, you don’t really believe that last sentence. I certainly didn’t when I first heard it. How could a 300-person company not have any formal management? My observation is that it takes new hires about six months before they fully accept that no one is going to tell them what to do, that no manager is going to give them a review, that there is no such thing as a promotion or a job title or even a fixed role (although there are generous raises and bonuses based on value to the company, as assessed by peers). That it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, to allocate the most valuable resource in the company – their time – by figuring out what it is that they can do that is most valuable for the company, and then to go do it. That if they decide that they should be doing something different, there’s no manager to convince to let them go; they just move their desk to the new group (the desks are on wheels, with computers attached) and start in on the new thing. (Obviously they should choose a good point at which to do this, and coordinate with both groups, but that’s common sense, not a rule, and isn’t enforced in any way.) That everyone on a project team is an individual contributor, doing coding, artwork, level design, music, and so on, including the leads; there is no such thing as a pure management or architect or designer role. That any part of the company can change direction instantly at any time, because there are no managers to cling to their people and their territory, no reorgs to plan, no budgets to work around. That there are things that Gabe badly wants the company to do that aren’t happening, because no one has signed up to do them.
Which is astonishing, really. This could explain either why it takes Valve so long to finish a game or why Valves games are so bloody good.
Since ideally a communist society would be “a free society of free individuals” where people work because they want to work and not because they’re being coerced to do so by threats to their very existence, the comparison of Valve and an (ideal) communist society is not so much out of place.
Come to think of it, this actually sounds a lot like Marx ideas about communism. In a capitalist society everyone is defined and constrained by his trade (a direct effect of the division of labour) and thus is a carpenter, a hunter, a fisherman or a critic, in a communist society one could hunt in the mornign, fish at noon and critisize in the evening, without ever being a hunter, a fisherman or a critic.
So, since Valve employees can chose their project and even their role in the project, animating in the morning, programming at noon and designing in the evening, without ever beeing an animator, a programmer or a designer and do so without the threat of milestones, they are bound to feel a much larger personal attachment to the games they create.
So there you have it. Valve: bunch of commies. Viva la revolution!