'Dilbert' Creator Draws on Office Foibles
SCOTT ADAMS doesn't look like a nerd. The creator of the sardonic and wildly popular "Dilbert" cartoon is clean-cut and boyish.
But he has an image to maintain. And his audience of energetic engineers, sycophantic secretaries, and mediocre managers expect to meet a techno-geek with upturned tie. When he addresses company gatherings, "people often wear pocket protectors as their way of saying 'Hi,' " Adams says.
Dilbert, which now appears in 800 newspapers in 23 countries, combines droll humor with insight into office foibles.
"He will say the things that aren't politically correct in the workplace but are in the back of our minds," says Howard High, communications manager at nearby Intel Corp. "But it's perfectly politically correct to pin up a cartoon."
Adams manages to amuse manager and employee without offending either, perhaps because each thinks Adams is satirizing the other. Intel President Andrew Grove has three Dilbert cartoons pinned to his cubicle partition. (Yes, Intel's president also lives in a cubicle. But he also took off in late February for a skiing sabbatical.)
Adams adeptly skewers ridiculous office trends, aided by the 200 to 300 e-mail messages he receives daily from frustrated Dilberts around the country.
In just the last few weeks, Adams has noted that increasing numbers of corporations are banning microwave popcorn. "Apparently, managers are complaining that it makes an unprofessional smell," Adams says, "and it leads to lower productivity."
Adams has published six Dilbert books, with a seventh due in May called "The Dilbert Principle," an ode to mangers and their victims. The book, published by HarperBusiness, is largely text with some cartoons. In it, Adams claims the Dilbert Principle has replaced the Peter Principle, which posited that workers don't function well when promoted past their so-called level of competence.
"But now," Adams says, "people are promoted directly to management without ever going through that temporary competence phase. Managers see a guy who can't write programs, can't design a network, and doesn't have too much talent [and say], 'We'd better put him in management where he can't do any harm.' "
Adams grew up in Windham, N.Y., in the Catskill Mountains. He had to overcome pre-pubescent disappointment when his early attempts at cartooning were rejected by Famous Artists School, a correspondence course. No one is turned down by Famous Artists. But Adams, who was 11 at the time, says "you had to be 12 years old to be a famous artist."
But he did show promise at a young age. "I graduated high school as valedictorian," he says, "because the other 39 people in my class couldn't spell 'valedictorian.' "
Adams moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1979 and eventually got an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked at a series of "humiliating and low-paying jobs" at a local bank and then jumped to Pacific Bell.
The Dilbert idea began with doodles during boring meetings. He drew cartoons while pretending to take notes, Adams says, demonstrating how he used his left hand to block the view of what his right hand was doing. The characters became popular with fellow workers, and he used them for business presentations.
In 1989 he drew 50 sample strips, sent them off to the United Feature Syndicate, and the rest is history. Later, Adams used his MBA training to do a little market research. In 1993 he added an e-mail address on the strip (ScottAdams@AOL.com) and learned that readers were very interested in his office observations. The current incarnation of Dilbert was born.
He used to get much of his inspiration from fellow cubicle dwellers at Pacific Bell. But in June 1995, he was downsized. He's still 5 ft., 9 in., but now he can devote full time to answering his e-mail and drawing cartoons.
Dilbert has become a mini-industry, complete with mugs, T-shirts, and a home page on the World Wide Web. The home page provides a daily cartoon along with ads and exhortations to buy Dilbert products.
Adams refuses to comment on whether or not the home page generates $1 million in revenue, as some have estimated. He only says, "It's unquestionably economically good at this point." Having a master's in business administration, he confides, "is why I can slither around these answers so gracefully."
Today he lives in a split-level abode in the San Francisco suburb of Dublin, where all the condos on his block look the same. It helps him keep up his image.
Success doesn't appear to have spoiled Adams. He still pads around the house in bare feet and can go to the local McDonald's without being recognized. But, then, so can most cartoonists.
Adams doesn't worry right now about the burnout that has affected such famous cartoonists as Garry Trudeau (of Doonesbury, who took a one-year hiatus) Gary Larson (The Far Side), and, this fall, Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes). "You'll notice that all those people ... were amazingly rich at the time," he observes. "I suspect the richer I get, the less tolerance I'll have for real work."
INTEL employees certainly hope Adams doesn't take a hiatus anytime soon. Software engineers there have rigged up a special program that downloads the cartoon from Dilbert's home page and deposits it directly into their e-mail accounts every morning.
Engineer Bob McGowan says Dilbert perfectly grasps the essence of company meetings. Intel periodically goes through a zero-based budgeting process, asking workers to justify their work, starting from scratch.
"First we establish the objectives we want to achieve, and then key results to accomplish the objectives," McGowan says. Everything is approved by management. After analyzing the objectives for several months, "you don't have time for the rest of them. Then you reevaluate them. It's a continuing process of evaluating more than actually doing."
Dilbert would be proud.
Intel Customer Support Manager Catherine Yetts suggests that all prospective new hires be asked to bring a favorite Dilbert cartoon. "One way to weed them out would be if they didn't bring one," she says.
Everyone interviewed at Intel says Dilbert accurately portrays corporate life in general and Intel's in particular. "Ask him who his spy is at Intel," Ms. Yetts says.
Adams is asked that question a lot. He claims not to have paid agents at any company, nor has he ever worked at a company outside the Bay Area since his cartoon began. His daily diet of e-mail gives him more than enough morsels. Many of the recent hors d'oeuvres deal with downsizing and cost-cutting.
As a cost-cutting measure, "One company removed all the janitorial help and removed the wastebaskets from the cubicles," Adams says. Employees "were instructed to pile their waste on their desk in a neat pile until the end of the day." Then they could dump their garbage in a central receptacle "on the way out."
For the moment, Adams doesn't do on-site visits to get cartoon ideas. He has had offers from company presidents to join their firms on an anonymous basis, just to attend meetings and observe cubicle protocol. So far he hasn't accepted any of the offers, "But I think I might at some point," he warns.
So in the months ahead, beware of a newly hired, blond, boyish-looking guy pretending to be a nerd. He may be lurking at a cubicle near you.