Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Valve New Employee Handbook

Have you guys ever read this thing? It's one of the most inspiring things I've ever read.

If you've never read the Valve New Employee Handbook, check it out here. I have many thoughts about it that I'd like to share.

As Fangamer grows, we're constantly trying to figure out what sort of company we want to be: what works, what doesn't, what we do well, what we suck at... there's a lot to consider, and I'd be lying if I said working at Fangamer was all unicorns and rainbows. (Hell, even working at Lisa Frank wasn't all unicorns and rainbows... figuratively speaking.)

For that reason, it's comforting to have something to turn to when I feel like I need guidance on what will make Fangamer the kind of company I want it to be: a house of innovators and designers working to change the world of video games for the better. It's a lofty goal, but I'd rather dream big and fail than dream small and succeed.

My dreams for Fangamer, the impact it's had, and the impact it might have in the future, are all topics for another time. Suffice to say, though, that I feel like there's a lot to learn by studying the Valve New Employee Handbook.

I reference it like a Bible of Business Structure, studying it like a preacher preparing a sermon about creating an efficient, creative environment where ideas can be cultivated, grow, and (most importantly) become reality.

There are three things that stand out to me most in the Handbook: the flat structure, raises via peer review and stack ranking, and the process of hiring.

The flat structure is something Fangamer kind of has, but kind of doesn't. The concept is that once you're hired, you have control in the company: you can create projects, work on what you feel is most important to making the company successful, and you have the authority to create and ship a product. There's no management and no oversight, nobody to report to. You work, you make mistakes, you learn, and you keep improving for the sake of the company.

There's some downsides to that structure, of course. For one thing, some people like structure: when you have to decide what you're doing all the time, work takes on a completely different meaning that when you work retail or other low-brainpower jobs. For any thinking job, having a work/life separation is difficult because work will always follow you home, and that makes some people uncomfortable. Not everyone is like me where, ideally, my work is my life in many ways. And even I get overwhelmed sometimes, trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing. I think it's worth it, but I doubt everyone agrees.

And then, of course, there's a trust factor in a flat structure: you have to be confident that everyone in the company deserves the power to work on what they want, to be free of oversight. And that's where the importance of the hiring process comes in:

Fangamer is not a wealthy company. We can not afford to hire the best of the best right now. Instead, we must hire people with potential to handle the things we need them to handle, to fill in the gaps of our abilities and help the company grow.

That said, even now we should be keeping an eye out for people we can trust to run the business with us; people who are more talented than us, who will help lift the company higher. Sometimes we get the idea in our heads that we should start looking for "mailroom workers": people who will only be working in the mailroom, making certain that packages get shipped out. Effectively, people who are beneath the rest of us, who have higher functioning duties. However, I think that's a mistake: hiring people just for the mailroom further entrenches us as a fulfillment center rather than a creative body. And, as it turns out, while fulfilling packages is enough for many people at first, after a few months to a year they will begin to realize that they want something more out of their jobs.

I would prefer to share the responsibility of the mailroom, creating a natural check for how we expand both the creative and fulfillment aspects of the company.

And then there's the process for figuring out how people get paid in a flat structure: peer review and stack ranking. The idea is that the people you work with determine your worth to the company, a concept that likewise requires a lot of trust in the people you've hired.

Anyway, I'm talking in some pretty heavy abstractions, and I'm sure I've lost some people along the way. Suffice to say that I think Fangamer has a lot of growing to do, and so do I. It's not enough to simply look to success for guidance, but to look for the kind of success you want. Valve is my kind of success, so I plan to learn from them as much as possible.

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