#1 Workplace to make a Psychopath Successful is the Weird World of Valve
Updated: Jul 13
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 F2 motorcycles in the SuperBike Series, and 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 calls at the point I am pondering writing an article on Valve.
I ask if he’s read about Valve’s structure or internal workings.
Tarbon tells me he's a future citizen and, as such, he doesn’t read; he ‘absorbs'. He was being a smart ass.
The Consumer View of Valve from Tarbon the Gamer
As we talk it becomes clear that Tarbon knows 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's a lot of hype and marketing, and this is what the brand's built 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. He asked me if I knew about Steam.
I said I did. After all, there is some knowledge transfer to the mum of a gamer.
No-one can get near Valve. They own 38% market share and are set to grow to 80% — in the online market alone.
Epic Games, the guys behind ‘Fortnite’ are probably the biggest challenger to Steam, and they’re just 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.
The Tyranny of Structureless Groups
I’ve been long-time fascinated with what I call ‘the tyranny of structureless groups’. Ong Kar Jin’s article ‘The Nightmare of Valve’s self-organizing [sic] “utopia”’ cities 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 the 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 the same-same, but different 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.
Maybe it's more like William Golding’s cautionary text ‘Lord of the Flies,’ or the playground at school with the mean girls who set the rules; deciding who is in or not; often on a daily or even hourly basis according to their whim.
Tarbon talks about how entitled and ‘BS’ companies are' he refers to a Bunnings interview process he opted out of a few years ago. The interview involved multiple meetings and full-scale role-playing exercises for a job on the shop floor at Bunnings.
The Valve Manifesto — Fanaticism, Communism, Dictatorship
I find 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 Glassdoor 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
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
After I read that Tarbon tells me that is the place he wants to work. The thought of working at Valve makes him excited. There is no irony or self-awareness about his statement.
He reckons he’d do great there.
Then he turns the conversation to Coca Cola - he doesn’t understand what went wrong at Coke. Something to do with community?
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.
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 and tells me he’s gotta go.
I’m accustomed to these random calls on Tarbon's errands, where I keep him company for a bit. Tarbon 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.”