T-Shaped People

A few weeks ago Mark left a comment with a link to video game maker Valve’s company handbook.  That triggered my memory of a NY Times piece profiling them back in September that had garnered quite a bit of attention because of Valve’s “flat” organization (there are no managers) and 100% time (employees can work on whatever they want, kind of like Google’s 20% time…except all the time).

Curious to learn more, I then sat down with my iPad and read the whole employee handbook.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, but there was one section within hiring that really stuck out to me:

We value “T-shaped” people.
That is, 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). This recipe is important for success at Valve. We often have to pass on people who are very strong generalists without expertise, or vice versa. An expert who is too narrow has difficulty collaborating. A generalist who doesn’t go deep enough in a single area ends up on the margins, not really contributing as an individual.
Valve T-Shaped People

This!!!  In my head I’ve never quite been able to quantify the diverse-yet-narrow skillset needed to start/run a small-but-growing web company like ours, or to work at a company like ours, but that says it all.  100%.  When we were hiring we tried to convey this in our job posting, and overall I think we did a good job.  But being able to use the T-shape model as a guide for us, and as a way to explain to employees what we’re looking for, will be incredibly helpful to us in the future.

2 comments on T-Shaped People

  1. Mark W. says:

    Hi Adam. Thanks for the NYT article as it was very interesting. Valve has a very unique culture. I’m sure they pay their people very well there and I’m pretty sure it isn’t the money that motivates them or keeps them there.
    There was also another section in their company handbook regarding the hiring process that stood out for me. It was “We’re looking for people stronger than ourselves. When unchecked, people have a tendency to hire others who are lower-powered than themselves. The questions listed above are designed to help ensure that we don’t start hiring people who are useful but not as powerful as we are. We should hire people more capable than ourselves, not less.” You have to be very self-confident of yourself and your own abilities to pull this off in actual practice. It’s best for the company but maybe not the best for your own interests.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Absolutely! I found that section to be very interesting as well. I think about this often in the context of hiring a programmer, whenever that may be. It will only really be worth it if we hire someone who is better than I am, but there’s that part of me that fears that for a variety of reasons.

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