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Can Valve's 'Bossless' Company Model Work Elsewhere? 522

Posted by samzenpus
from the missing-a-lot-of-work-lately dept.
glowend writes "I just listened to a fascinating podcast with Valve's economist-in-residence, Yanis Varoufakis, about the unusual structure of the workplace at Valve where there is no hierarchy or bosses. Teams of software designers join spontaneously to create and ship video games without any top-down supervision. Varoufakis discussed the economics of this Hayekian workplace and how it actually functions alongside Steam — a gaming platform created by Valve. I kept wondering: assuming that his description of Valve is accurate, can this model work for other tech companies?"
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Can Valve's 'Bossless' Company Model Work Elsewhere?

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  • No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by GeneralTurgidson (2464452) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @07:43PM (#43064021)
    Too many entrenched managers who provide nothing to the company.
  • by Art Challenor (2621733) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @07:55PM (#43064073)
    Isn't this how most companies work? In order to get anything done, you form an ad-hoc group of capable people to work on a project.

    Seems to me the only difference is that in a normal company that group then has to figure out how to outflank the management hierarchy in order to complete the project, whereas this model skips that step.
  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gweihir (88907) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @08:09PM (#43064141)

    Too many entrenched managers who provide nothing to the company.

    The managers are not the only problem (albeit usually the largest one). Incompetent or unmotivated "craftsmen" (engineers, artists, ...) are the second problem as they will either try to become managers themselves or be unable or unwilling to temporarily assume management functions. And the third problem is anybody with a lust for power, although that often coincides with being incompetent.

  • by gweihir (88907) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @08:11PM (#43064147)

    Unfortunately very true. But it is worse: There are quite a few companies where this is not possible. How do you think really large and important projects fail?

  • by Darinbob (1142669) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @08:12PM (#43064155)

    The "bossless" part is just a bit of hyperbole. _Someone_ is going to be hiring and firing. It probably means it's not a strict hierarchical hand out of duties (which is actually pretty rare many places), but there's still someone involved with making sure that all the money being spent will lead to an actual product that gets released on time, even if that person isn't constantly applying pressure.

  • Re:It must work.. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by hedwards (940851) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @08:21PM (#43064199)

    Yes, but they make virtually all their money off of other companies products. Steam itself is poorly coded and buggy. It's good enough that people don't run away from it, but the software itself is in bad need of a rewrite.

    The latter half-life projects are laughably far behind.

    So, I'd say that Valve really demonstrates why bossless isn't a good idea. Somebody needs to be in charge and making sure things are done at some point.

  • Re:Fairy Tales... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rudy_wayne (414635) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @08:22PM (#43064211)

    Who authorized all the recent "layoffs" ?


    The claim that there are "no bosses" is complete rubbish. There has to be a few people in charge who make decisions and act as the final authority when a group of people cannot agree about something. Otherwise, nothing would ever get done due to the fact that people are horribly imperfect.

    Should we hire this person? What if the "group consensus" is that they don't like him because of his race? Who's going to tell them thats illegal?
    Do we need to buy some new servers? What should we buy? How much should we charge for this latest game?

    Somebody has to make those decisions. And a few million more. They might not actually have a job title with "boss" or "manager" in it, but they are still bosses and managers.

  • by tompaulco (629533) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @08:42PM (#43064303) Homepage Journal

    The two reasons for people to go into management are absent here 1. Incompetence: Doing management is often a way for people that have no real skills with regard to the product being made to join or stay in an organization. 2. Lust for power: The other primary motivation for going into management is wanting to tell others what to do.

    In bad managers (the predominant type), both things combine. Good engineers, artists, writers, etc. almost universally want to practice their craft and get better at it. Doing any management-like function is something they will only do willingly (and temporarily) for the greater good and never as their sole function. If you have such a pool of people, the only permanent (but critical) management function to remain is to make sure nobody incompetent at or not passionate for their (non-management) job and nobody with lust for power joins the team. People that are passionate about what they do are easy to identify. Skill is harder, but doable if you invest some time to find out. Lust for power is still harder, but people that have gotten good as their primary competency rarely have it as it gets into the way.

    This also means that most companies cannot use this model, as they have been taken over a long time ago with those of no valuable skills and/or a craving for power and, from my observation, usually have quite a few incompetent non-managers in addition.

    I submit that the most common reason why technical people go into management is not listed. That is: HR puts an arbitrary cap on what technical people can make and it is less than what managers make. In order to progress in your career and make more money, you have to go into management, and therefor remove yourself from the productivity pool. It seems counter-intuitive, but most everything that companies do is counter-intuitive.

  • Re:No (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Penguinisto (415985) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @08:57PM (#43064349) Journal

    Oh, it's not just managers and deadwood/slackers... too many corporate departments have specialized and bloated-out unnecessarily (Note: at risk of being called troll, IT is admittedly included to an extent - depending on company/practices.)

      We can start with "Human Resources" - I'm willing to wager that you can easily chop or outsource (to computer or external service) 90% of what an HR specialist does, and still run the company just fine. Seriously - how many effing times does one have to sit through company-wide mandatory sex-harassment or diversity-appreciation classes? Fire any SOB who crosses the line, call it good. It's not as if anyone can claim ignorance of the law, for heaven's sake.

    That's just the biggest one that comes to mind for me, but I'm very sure that any sales department whose members aren't actually selling the company's product? Yeah - bloat. IT departments with members that aren't getting their hands into desktops, servers, networks, or actual code, etc? Ditto.

    'course, I'm also of a mind that unless the company is sufficiently large enough (e.g. Fortune 500-sized), middle managers shouldn't even exist.

    Finally, there's redundant positions. If I'm a Systems Engineer who deals with building whole environments for clients, why do I need dedicated server engineers helping me put together my company's hosted solutions? Cut me out a few VMs in their own subnet, point me to the internal website/share where the approved software lives, tell me what IP my own virtual firewall lives at, then get the hell out of my way. Need Change-Management/ITIL? Okay - but keep it to a minimum and save it for anything after production-stage. No need for projects to be hung up by internal SLAs, no waiting a literal week on someone with almost the same skillset to change some setting for me that I could have done five minutes after recognizing the need for it, etc. (Mind you, that last example exists in the real world... hence the justification for, you know, cutting the $#@! fat out.)


  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @09:00PM (#43064353) Journal

    The work will get done, and our industrial processes can produce enough for everyone.

    I don't think that's really true. I sure wouldn't be doing that work. I would be doing some work, but it would be work for me, that I enjoy. The world would look like the open source landscape at best. At worst we'd have no garbage collectors.

  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by davydagger (2566757) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @09:40PM (#43064521)
    we are already enslaved. those who produce the wealth in the first place don't own it at all. someone else fucking does.

    workers are still capable of producing goods and services without bosses.

    bosses cannot produce goods or services without workers.
  • Re:It must work.. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by captjc (453680) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @09:41PM (#43064525)

    It is slow, a memory hog, and the web browser takes forever to load (especially the store page). Half of the updates seem to try to reapply themselves every time I open Steam.

    Steam may not be the worst program in the world, but it is far from perfect.

  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Your.Master (1088569) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @09:48PM (#43064547)

    If they stay at home instead of working, then they aren't motivated by the money they could earn.

    Capitalism runs on the assumption that people are motivated by the marginal differences in income between jobs. This continues to operate under the universal basic income scenario. Otherwise, there can only be intra-industry salary competition and never inter-industry.

    This reminds me of an economist's thought experiment -- let's say there are two widgets, a premium one for $200 and a knock-off for $100. The premium one is legitimately better, so you intend to buy that one, but the knock-off would do and if you were tight on money you could get by with that. You will only ever need one of these widgets.

    You get to the store, and actually find that there's an ill-conceived doorcrasher sale. Widgets are all uniformly $100 cheaper. The knock-off is now free and the premium one is now $100. What do you get now?

    A lot of people instinctively say they'd take the knock-off because it's free, but if you're a rational actor you should stick with your original choice, because the difference between the knock-off and the premium one, both in terms of costs and benefits, has not changed at all, whatsoever.

    In reality, people aren't rational, so they will shift to the knock-off sometimes. But we also aren't talking about a one-day-only sale. People want luxuries, so they'll work.

    There have been some positive experiments with this in the past (eg. Canada tried [] and came out with some pretty positive results, although they knew this was not permanent so that could affect behaviour) and there are lots of places that have a partial basic income guarantee without imploding, though long term full basic income guarantees in otherwise-capitalist-leaning countries are scarce. An experiment in a poorer nation actually registered an increase in economic activity: [].

    I have no doubt there are downsides to this, or even really advocating for it, I'm just trying to counter the "dumbest idea" that you put forward. Like most economic ideas, it's not obviously stupid or obviously smart, because just about nothing about economics is simple.

  • by Phrogman (80473) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @09:54PM (#43064571) Homepage

    There is another reason for going into management. Apparently there is considerable 'ageism' out there in the tech industry. If you don't have management experience by a certain age, you end up getting sidelined because the non-tech people tend to hire younger developers for development positions (This seems to be the position I find myself in at the moment). Younger developers are seen as more exploitable (longer hours, less pay, no benefits etc) over more experienced employees who will expect to command higher wages.

  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BosstonesOwn (794949) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @10:05PM (#43064605)

    There is a real need for dedicated IT staff.Especially if your building customers environments.

    I'd hate to say it but I have seen this first hand. Firstly security is ignored, and secondly there has to e a level of over site.

    Im a systems admin for a fortune 500 and in charge of security, you don't even know how many times "staff" have setup a replica of the customers environment and missed the security aspect or even forgot huge parts of the environment or even misconfigured half of it and we could not replicate bugs. My team goes in and notices this stuff off the bat.

    There needs to be dedicated staff because core infrastructure should not be pieced together, It should be engineered, when not properly engineered and just thrown together based on what people want.... This usually ends up ina giant mess, which dedicated staff are called in to unravel and repair.

  • Homo Faber (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Capsaicin (412918) * on Sunday March 03, 2013 @10:09PM (#43064617)

    Quite an interesting comparation because then, how is it that the vast majority of companies are governed by Communism, just the Soviet Russia style?

    It's an interesting comparison because the basic idea behind communism was that fundamentally the same as that behind Theory Y style organisations. The idea, that is, that left to their own devices, without the imposition of formal authority (remember that in theory 'communism' was to be a stateless and non-hierarchical society), humans will be self-motivated and express themselves by what they produce. You will recall from your reading of Marx, that one of the great criticisms communists levelled at capitalist production methods (Taylorism), is that the assembly line robbed the factory worker of their human identity by 'alienating' them from the products of their own labour. For Marx you are what you make.

    just the Soviet Russia style?

    OP wrote about "Communism on paper," so a comparison with Soviet Russia (which never claimed to have a communist system in place anyway) is a little unfair. I do agree, however, that the human management in the Soviet state seems to have a more in common (and if I understand it this is your point) with that in the majority of modern corporations, than with this self-motivated pride in one's own work approach.

  • Re:No (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 03, 2013 @10:20PM (#43064661)

    Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, had a somewhat similar storyline. Engineers formed the elite of the future, and everyone else had a boring life that was provided for them and make-work jobs designed to keep them busy.

    This same topic also figured prominently in the Unabomber's manifesto.

  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by spiffmastercow (1001386) on Sunday March 03, 2013 @10:59PM (#43064773)
    The CxOs are nothing without the engineers who design their products, and the engineers are nothing without workers to build the products they design. And managers generally function to keep everybody on track. Ever worked on a dev team with no manager? I have, and nothing got done until they finallt hired a manager.
  • Re:No (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mdielmann (514750) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:01AM (#43064911) Homepage Journal

    But universal basic income is a sound idea,

    No, it's one of the dumbest ideas I've seen spread across the Internet lately.

    and modern capitalism's worst fear (how can you enslave those who have choice?), giving me two reasons to love it.

    How are you going to give a 'universal basic income' to everyone without enslaving those who produce that wealth in the first place? They have a choice: until you send them to the inevitable gulags, they can say 'screw you' and stay at home instead of working.

    I suppose you'd rather spend the money on these shiftless people via private industries taking the burden of under-performers, and pay for additional policing and prisons to deal with the people who aren't suited or willing to work to support themselves? That sounds like a much more economical solution. Oh right, taxes are being used to deal with those issues already.

    Someone here has a sig about taxes being the price of civilization. There is a balance between Dane geld and social support. The people who aren't willing or able to fit into the normal molds of civilization are going to have a cost one way or another. I personally prefer a better method than letting them freeze or starve to death in the streets.

  • Re:No (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Billly Gates (198444) on Monday March 04, 2013 @12:08AM (#43064933) Journal

    CEO's aren't worth anything?

    One word "Nokia". How are they doing since they got that new CEO? A bad worker or engineer can fuck up a hell of alot less than director and certainly a CEO.

  • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by drakaan (688386) on Monday March 04, 2013 @01:41AM (#43065243) Homepage Journal
    If you're talking about welfare for all, working or not, then the question is where that money comes from. Is there some endless hole of wealth that is supposed to prop us up? I understand the intent, but the mechanics of this idea have either been very poorly explained or won't work any better than a traditional ponzi scheme.
  • Re:No (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bosah (2117736) on Monday March 04, 2013 @02:30AM (#43065381)
    Heh, a Dev team that accomplished nothing without a manager is a dev team I'd never want to manage.
  • Re:No (Score:4, Insightful)

    by LordLucless (582312) on Monday March 04, 2013 @03:29AM (#43065569)

    He's talking about a "post-scarcity" scenario - which basically means it's not applicable now, nor any time in the conceivable future.

  • by symbolset (646467) * on Monday March 04, 2013 @06:05AM (#43065993) Journal

    Capitalism, communism, socialism: all the financial models and systems are broken now by a thing not anticipated by their models: plenty.

    When food is limited it makes sense to limit it to those who contribute to the commonweal. When it is so plentiful that we plow half of it back into the ground to keep the price up, and throw half of the rest away - not so much. Likewise with shelter, clothing, all the basic needs. It makes sense to leave some homeless in the winter to freeze to death when there is no room in built homes - but of that now there is no lack. Money is just a proxy for production units.

    We have at some estimates 40% of our able population idle for the simple reason that they're not required to produce what we need. That is a serious problem because if we don't figure it out when that figure hits 50% they will be the majority. It's also an opportunity, as these folk are quite capable and eager to produce. The one who figures out how to empower them to produce a social good will be canonized.

    We need a new model.

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