An account of issues faced by the hardware team
Given the popularity of its games, Steam, and the company's fascinating structure, it's no wonder we enjoy discussing Valve as much as we do. While the studio can at times sound like a magical place from the outside looking in, it's unrealistic to believe that there aren't problems under the surface. As a guest on The Grey Area podcast, former hardware engineer Jeri Ellsworth spoke at length about difficulties staffing Valve's hardware group and the organization's flat structure.
"There is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company," she said. "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."
Describing the hardware team, Ellsworth continued: "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." There was also difficulty in getting employees on board: "...it's impossible to pull those people away for something risky like augmented reality because they only want to work on the sure thing. So that was a frustration, we were starved for resources.
"We had a machine shop with millions of dollars of equipment in it and couldn't hire a machinist for $40,000 a year to manufacture machine parts for it," Ellsworth said. "Because they were worried that bringing in a machinist would hurt their precious culture. If I sound bitter, it's because I am. I am really, really bitter. Because they promised me the world and then stabbed me in the back."
The full discussion is worth hearing (or reading, if you're viewing Develop's transcription). Ellsworth says "I'm still really friendly with the folks there and the ones I wasn't friends with before we became friends since." From what I gather, Valve was -- at the time of bringing her and others on to build up the hardware division -- not well enough equipped organizationally to handle such an endeavor. For what it's worth, Ellsworth was able to continue work on her augmented-reality project after being fired.