Five Life Lessons From Valve’s Employee Handbook


Last week Valve’s handbook for new employees was released online. It’s a fascinating read, giving us an insight into the Seattle based company, quite possibly explaining why the closest we’ve come to Half Life 3 is a mocked up picture for an April Fool’s joke, and making you wonder how on Earth they’ve ever managed to make anything.

It’s either genius or madness, a masterclass in how to run a business or a invitation to chaos.

Either way there are some important life lessons to take away from the handbook.


5. Your Bosses’ Name Doesn’t Matter

The last two pages of the handbook are a glossary and one of those entries is entitled “Josh Weier” who we’re told is a 57 year old who looks like a 14 year old and bathes in stem cells everyday. The point here however is the entry after his name, which reads

“Variously pronounced “Josh Weere,” “Josh Wire,” “Josh Woe-Rue,” “Josh wuhh…[trailing off],” and “Josh Joshington” by those of us who stopped caring. They’re all equally valid!”

Your may like your boss, you probably don’t. So the next time they gives you grief over that missing report or bringing them the wrong type of coffee make up a clever name for him/her but maybe don’t say it to their face.

4. At all Times Pretend you Know what you’re Doing

Valve helpfully provides a list of things they’re not good at doing for their new employees. The list includes “helping new people find their way,” and “disseminating information internally.” Which may explain why the staff had to email each other to determine that Apple CEO Tim Cook did not in fact visit the company recently.

Apparently Valve aren’t too good at mentoring people or making predictions more than a few months out either. If that sounds like your company then remember you’re not alone, and that since you’re in at the deep end you may as well at least try to make it look like you know what you’re doing.

3. If you’re Hiring Nothing Else Matters

In the Gospel According to Newell

“hiring well is the most important thing in the Universe. Everything else in our world is subordinate to finding great people and keeping the bar high.”

On the one hand you could look at this as Valve’s way of ensuring that only the very best people are hired for the company. On the other hand this gives existing employees a chance to mess up and blame it on being under-appreciated.  Feel like your company is ignoring you because there’s a new employee of the month?

You my friend have been Vavled (yes I just made that word up).

2. The Best People are T Shaped

“The most successful people at Valve are both (1) highly skilled at a broad set of things and (2) world-class experts within a more narrow discipline.”

So what exactly is a T Shaped person?

“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).”

In other words you have to be both and expert and a jack of all trades. Or just very, very confused.

1. “Everyone is a designer. Everyone can question each other’s work” or Why we’ll (probably) Never See Half-Life 3

In Valve you can seemingly hire anyone from anywhere within the company to come work on your project. That’s why the credits for Half-Life are sorted alphabetically and not by job description (in fact the company has no job titles) or overall importance to the project.

Staff are asked to act as “strategists.” This rather vaguely means doing what’s right for consumers. While the career advancement of employees is

“tailored to you. It operates exactly as fast as you can manage to grow. You’re in charge of your track, and you can elicit help with it anytime from those around you.”

A very laissez faire approach to doing things. Indeed as I’ve said, reading through the handbook I’m surprised Valve has ever made anything. An alleged email from Gabe Newell has dashed hopes of seeing Half-Life 3, Left 4 Dead 3, or Portal 3 at E3 (that’s way to many 3s) this year but then again the way this company works we may never see them. Which in the case of Half-Life and Portal at least would be a very bad thing indeed.