Cory Roush

Dissonance and tension plus reflection and resolution equal intellectual growth

Valve's Corporate Culture Could Teach Us a Few Things About Education

Educators can learn a lot from video games without ever delving into the controversial subject of gamification. Instead, we can look at the hiring practices and corporate culture of the companies that create these games to realize that we are preparing students to work for companies that don't want anything to do with them.

Valve is a video game development company based out of Washington, and they are the geniuses behind some of the most critically-acclaimed games in the last decade, including the Half-Life series and the mind-bending puzzle/platformer Portal. They are also responsible for up to 70% of the digital market for games with their Steam service, packed with more than 1500 games.

Needless to say, they're a successful company. And if they continue to make money and grow, they're going to need employees... but not just any employees, according to a handbook written for new hires that leaked onto the Internet this weekend.

We've known that Silicon Valley and startups on both the West and East coast are famous for the innovative ways in which their employees are made to feel comfortable while at work. Fully-stocked refrigerators, healthy cafeteria menus, massage parlors and game rooms are commonly found in workplaces where creativity is valued. A pool table and complimentary passes to the company gym, though, are not the only essential ingredients for success. These companies also think long and hard about the environment they are creating when they hire new employees and bring them into the fold.

Although this handbook doesn't provide us with a look at how Valve hires its employees, it does show us what new hires are expected to do from Day One and beyond. And while reading it, I had to wonder if Valve's corporate culture and non-hierarchial management system will someday be threatened, not by competitors or investors, but by the workforce our schools are currently fostering.

The entire handbook is well worth a read and shouldn't take you long, but here are some key points:

  • Valve has no management system. Every employee is expected to be dedicated to the company's success, so why distrust your coworker and doubt their solutions to key problems? Google tried this system in its infancy and later ended up with a much more rigid structure.
  • Valve subtly prompts employees to collaborate. The desks have wheels.
  • Valve generously gives its employees "100% time". All work is self-directed and people vote with their feet; projects with obvious potential attract developers to them.
  • Valve values long-term returns over lucrative opportunities.
  • Valve recognizes that organizational structure forms within teams. Further, they understand that the best teams are the ones created by the members themselves and for very specific, temporary purposes.
  • Valve encourages risk-taking. "Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake... Screwing up is a great way to find out that your assumptions were wrong or that your model of the world was a little bit off."
  • Valve employees review each other's performance. The payroll department is not a part of the process. "... the best quality feedback is directive and prescriptive, and designed to be put to use by the person you're talking about."
  • Valve credits the people who worked on a game... alphabetically, without titles.
  • Valve hires "T-shaped" people.

Valve isn't so naive as to think that the company, as outlined here, can survive forever without vigilance. In the brief section where they do address hiring practices, they specifically point out that hiring the wrong kind of people will destroy the flat management structure of the company and before long, bureacracy will paralyze them. Unfortunately, Valve may not always have a lot to choose from if we continue to ignore the way modern organizations are run and force students down an assembly-line model of education.

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