#1 Workplace to make a Psychopath Successful is the Weird World of Valve
Updated: Apr 29
My son would rule at Valve, or at least last longer than his Three-week tenure at Coca-Cola Amatil
Photo credit: Pexels
My son, Tarbon is an A-type personality, he races motorcycles in the SuperBike Series, and he runs his own business. No matter what he does in business, his favourite thing is sales. His last sales job was for Coco-Cola Amatil, and he didn’t make it past the six-week ‘trial’ period. Tarbon loved the job, smashed his sales targets, hotted up ‘cold cases,’ and made more sales than anyone else on the floor. He wanted the job and tried to fit in. “Sorry,’ said his then manager, “I don’t think you’re the right fit for the team.”
In a timely coincidence, Tarbon called me this morning as I was pondering the writing of an article on Valve.
“Have you read about Valve’s structure or internal workings?” I asked.
“No, Cairo,” he replied, “I’m a future citizen, I don’t read, I absorb.”
He was being a smart ass.
“Hmmm,” I said, “I’ve been reading about them this morning. I’m considering writing an article on the subject, but haven’t made a decision yet.”
The Consumer view of Valve from Tarbon the Gamer
Tarbon knew a lot about Valve as a brand and their place in the market. Founded in 1998 by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington (both ex Microsoft), Tarbon said, “Valve was the cool sh*t. Like with Apple, they were all about self-fulfilment. There was a lot of hype and marketing, and this is what they built the brand on.”
“Valve,” he said, “challenged the idea of ownership. It was a big deal. There was no physical copy of a game; you now owned the zeros and ones that made it up. Steam, do you know what that is?”
I said I did, after all, there is some knowledge transfer to the mum of a gamer. “Well no-one can get near them. “
“Yes,” I said, “38% market share and set to grow to 80%.” I couldn’t remember the time frame for that.
“Is that the physical and online market?”
“Just online,” I replied.
He continued, “Epic Games, the guys behind ‘Fortnite’ are probably the biggest challenger to Steam, and they’re just a nowhere.”
“Everyone is still on-board with Steam and with Valve. Like with Apple, people are always trying to find out what’s going on in there.”
“People have been waiting so long for Halflife 3 that it has become a meme in its own right,” he concluded.
The Tyranny of Structureless Groups
I’ve been long-time fascinated with what I call ‘the tyranny of structureless groups. Today Ong Kar Jin’s Medium article showed up in my feed, ‘The Nightmare of Valve’s self-organizing [sic] “utopia”’ citing Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novella ‘Flatland.’ Abbott describes ‘a two-dimensional world lived in by squares, circles and other geometric shapes. Yet for all its flatness, the society of Flatland is deeply hierarchical (the higher the number of sides, the higher your status) and resistant to dissent (hostile to the idea of higher dimensions). Indeed, the narrator, A Square, is imprisoned for preaching the existence of three-dimensional space.’
I tell Tarbon that story.
“Sure,” he responds, “but what does that mean? Is that like the Steiner School where they have all their own rules, but they are their version of the rest of the world?”
Tarbon was referring to the school he sought desperately to get into and then got himself expelled from that same year, age ten.
“Not really,” I say, “think William Golding’s cautionary text ‘Lord of the Flies,’ or the playground at school with the mean girls who set the rules; and decide who is in or not; often on a daily or even hourly basis according to their whim.”
“Yeah fair enough, “he says, “but I’m so sick of how entitled and BS companies are nowadays.”
I read material online as we talk, “an interview at Valve takes all day,” I say.
“Did I tell you about the Bunnings interview?” he asks.
Tarbon is referring to multiple interviews and a full-scale role-playing exercise he endured a few years ago for a job on the floor at Bunnings. He opted out before the end of it all,
“Yes,” I said.
The Valve Manifesto — Fanaticism, Communism, Dictatorship
Ifind the relevant tweets from Gabe and read out Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis’ political economy analysis of Valve’s management system, calling it the “ultimate system of an alternative spontaneous order.”
“The current system of corporate governance is bunk. Capitalist corporations are on the way to certain extinction. Replete with hierarchies that are exceedingly wasteful of human talent and energies, intertwined with toxic finance, co-dependent with political structures that are losing democratic legitimacy fast, a form of post-capitalist, decentralised corporation will, sooner or later, emerge.”
“Wow!” Proclaims Tarbon, “That is some mental stuff, right there.”
Feeling like I am on a roll now, I push on. The article cites the prevalence of negative employee reviews on Glassdoor. I head over to see for myself and find a mix of review ratings; at best the scores are in the 4s, many in the 1s. But even the reviews that score the highest seem to have something in the ‘cons box’.
I find one with a lot to say, and to stack the deck in my favour, I skip right over the ‘Pros’ and get down to business reading out the ‘cons.’
“I worked at Valve Corporation full-time for more than 5 [sic] years Cons Flat structure really means an informal power and influence hierarchy, so you have to be socially adept, or you will get blindsided repeatedly. Some employees are more equal than others and are the ears and mouthpieces of board members. Cash compensation can be average or below average for people with solid but not exceptional skills. Company leadership is allergic to the word “policy”. Libertarian to the extreme — unwilling to even agree on matching basic humanitarian charity contributions, lots of “both sides” arguments in debates about online behavior. Being a jerk or worse to your coworkers is largely tolerated because the leadership does not place any value on “being nice”. Tiny HR department tries but they are necessarily subservient to the leadership, and at the highest levels, the company doesn’t believe that HR should get involved in anything except hiring, benefits, and logistics. If Gabe takes a personal interest in your area, you could find yourself suddenly overruled in ways that feel surprising and whiplash-inducing given the otherwise autonomous nature of employment at Valve.”
It seems Valve might be Tarbon’s Utopia
“OK,” he exclaims, “that is the place I want to work! That makes me excited.” There is no irony or self-awareness about his statement.
He goes on, “I reckon I’d do great there. I still don’t understand what went wrong at Coke, but I swear it was something to do with community.”
“Like they couldn’t get with your idea of that?” I joke.
The joke is lost.
“Coke values the importance of good vibes and community over smashing it out. They base everything around making everyone feel nice and looking after everyone’s feelings. I thrive in places where you can get the sh*t done.”
He goes on, “it’s fake and bullsh*t. Coke was a case study for me in high school about how they’d go into third world countries and bottle the water and sell it back to them.”
Without warning Tarbon makes an abrupt pivot. “Hey,” he says, “I gotta go.”
I’m used to these random calls made on his errands, keeping him company for a bit. He appears on my phone suddenly and disappears in much the same way.
“But Cairo,” he says before he goes, “you should write that article; I might even read it.”
Appendix: the Pros from the Review
“Valve’s flat structure and relatively limited bureaucracy really unlocks your ability to produce. If you are a multi-talented individual who can run a million miles per hour and are tired of other people getting in your way, Valve is probably the most productive environment you will ever see. Compensation can be excellent and the perks (annual paid vacation, laundry service, personal training for self and spouse, great office views) are wonderful. You can work with the smartest people in the world at Valve and just sit down for lunch with them whenever you want, and learn a ton about everything from hardware manufacturing to software engineering to network operations at scale.”