If you worked at Valve, the videogame company that brought you Half-Life and Portal, you wouldn’t get a title, a boss, or a pre-defined department (or even team). What you would get is a job with perhaps the most innovative company in the industry today.
Studies suggest 3 million jobs are still open if you have the skills, and some companies are even willing to train you on the job. This sneak peak at Valve’s employee handbook tells you what they expect of their employees, from peer reviews to T-shaped people.
What’s it like to be a designer in an environment with “no bosses, no defined teams, and no top-down product prioritization“?
Welcome to Flatland
Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, which is why military organizations rely on it so heavily.
But when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.
That’s why 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….
By now it’s obvious that roles at Valve are fluid. Traditionally at Valve, nobody has an actual title. This is by design, to remove organizational constraints. Instead we have things we call ourselves, for convenience. In particular, people who interact with others outside the company call themselves by various titles because doing so makes it easier to get their jobs done.
Inside the company, though, we all take on the role that suits the work in front of us. Everyone is a designer. Everyone can question each other’s work. Anyone can recruit someone onto his or her project. Everyone has to function as a “strategist,” which really means figuring out how to do what’s right for our customers. We all engage in analysis, measurement, predictions, evaluations.
One outward expression of these ideals is the list of credits that we put in our games–it’s simply a long list of names, sorted alphabetically. That’s it. This was intentional when we shipped Half-Life, and we’re proud to continue the tradition today….
Engineers: code is only the beginning
If you were hired as a software engineer, you’re now surrounded by a multidisciplinary group of experts in all kinds of fields–creative, legal, financial, even psychological. Many of these people are probably sitting in the same room as you every day, so the opportunities for learning are huge. Take advantage of this fact whenever possible: the more you can learn about the mechanics, vocabulary, and analysis within other disciplines, the more valuable you become.
Non-Engineers: program or be programmed
Valve’s core competency is making software. Obviously, different disciplines are part of making our products, but we’re still an engineering-centric company. That’s because the core of the software-building process is engineering. As in, writing code. If your expertise is not in writing code, then every bit of energy you put into understanding the code-writing part of making software is to your (and Valve’s) benefit. You don’t need to become an engineer, and there’s nothing that says an engineer is more valuable than you. But broadening your awareness in a highly technical direction is never a bad thing. It’ll either increase the quality or quantity of bits you can put “into boxes,” which means affecting customers more, which means you’re valuable….
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). This recipe is important for success at Valve. We often have to pass on people who are very strong generalists without expertise, or vice versa. An expert who is too narrow has difficulty collaborating. A generalist who doesn’t go deep enough in a single area ends up on the margins, not really contributing as an individual.
With major companies like Valve eschewing titles, is it any wonder resumes may be losing their currency?
Resumes, they say, are ineffective but Boston-based startup Smarterer believes it has the solution. The company’s platform provides job searchers with a simple way to show employers what they know by taking quizzes in subjects that range from engineering to music. Smarterer then crowdsources its test designs and employs a smart ranking system to give job searchers a score. Finally, it allows them to broadcast their successes to the world.