Valve Handbook for new employees

Some of the ideas it encapsulates, what I learned from it and what I managed to translate into my teams

This booklet is one of the best materialized pieces of company culture I know of.

The message that the reader is now part of a different parallel reality is the main theme of the book … and what an hell of a welcome message…

This is a lot more than an onboarding booklet, this is the reference for the company values. They provide a tool their team members can came back to whenever in doubt.

In the next couple of paragraphs I will try to identify a small part of the ideas they convey in the handbook and explain how I tried to bring them into my on teams with a varied degree of success.

Flat hierarchy

More than a flat hierarchy, the concept of having no barriers between employee and customer is empowering and brings the sense of responsibility to the table. If you believe on your employees capacities, responsibility should set the tone, not control.

On my teams I try to practice this approach but I still struggle. We can’t always be hiring experienced people. Some of my colleagues arrive fresh out of school and they still need to mature before all the barriers can be dropped.

Trying to promote a culture of discussion and participation is the way I found to get closer to this ideal scenario.

Complete Autonomy

Allowing workers to leverage their best qualities by choosing the projects they think fits them best, in an 100% free manner, is an awesome concept. I can even start my own project if I think that’s the best way i can contribute…awesome!

This one is is extremely hard to adopt. To achieve this kind of autonomy we must have a couple of things:

- Financial autonomy. If we are not financially independent we can’t afford many mistakes in the product direction. I know that having a great team, the mistakes will become learnings on the long term. The problem is that we may not have a long term compatible runway.

- Loosely regulated market segment. My current team works on the healthcare space, we can’t afford to go in the direction we wan’t to, we must be extremely careful with regulations and everything must be planned ahead with anticipation.

What I try to do is to get my team involved in the planing, where we discuss long term roadmap. This way they can contribute with their projects and ideas in a moment where we can plan ahead and anticipate regulatory problems.

Team organised into small project oriented groups (cabals)

The mission spirit, capacity to deliver fast, and communication boost that arise from this kind of team organisation, make it seem a no brainer.
Contrary to common belief, this kind of arrangement can be applied in almost any kind of company, even a big factory. If you have not done so yet, read the great book “Maverick” by Ricardo Semler.

In my team I have small groups working on different features but I can’t really say they are multidisciplinary teams, we are only 13, 9 developers, 2 devops and 2 designers. It doesn’t make sense yet.

Performance evaluation 100 % based on peers

Who better than your colleagues to know how you’ve been performing in your work?

Peer reviews are a great tool but they must be done taking some important aspects into consideration. Valve does that in a great way:
- Reviews should aim to be constructive. How can your colleagues improve should be the main theme.
- Reviews should be anonymous. This will prevent animosity and intermission of personal relationships into the review process.

In my team we have chosen to implement a little tool to help us trough this process.
“Improve-it” is a small web app that allows any team member to give feedback about any other, by answering a couple of questions in an anonymous and untraceable way. The feedback is only made available to the team manager and to the subject of the review.
We also use this tool to stack rank the team members agains’t each other and adjust compensation. This is done almost exactly like Valve does, by asking colleagues to rank team mates anonymously in a couple of categories: Skill, Output, Group contribution and Product contribution.

Hiring as the most important company action

“adding a great person can create value across the whole company. Missing out on hiring that great person is likely the most expensive kind of mistake we can make” — I couldn’t agree more. Nothing of what is described in this booklet is possible without great people, so hiring is of uttermost importance.

Everyone should be involved, it should be everyone’s priority.

Working in a small startup this assumes an even greater importance because we don’t have the capacity to absorb mistakes nor the money to pay above market average.

So what can we do?

We try to address this by maximising the hiring by team member reference. No team member is interest in bringing someone that he/she doesn’t think will push the company forward. At the same time the one referencing vouches for what we are doing. Bringing someone that already believes in the vision is the only way to compensate the lower payroll (make no mistake, you can’t go much below the market average, there’s no mission able to compensate the problems a low salary will bring your employee).

This is just a small part of what the booklet mentions, if you find some of these subjects of interest to you, do read the booklet (pdf).

Indie Campers Director of Product & Tech/ Web addict

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