PLAGUED BY A HEARTLESS BOSS, confined to a featureless cubicle and forced to endure the Great Lies of Management (“Employees are our most valuable asset”), Dilbert would seem to be one sorry dude. Except that while Corporate America chants its mantra of downsizing, Dilbert, cartoonist Scott Adams’s tuber-shaped alter ego, appears to be subversively upsizing. His puzzled visage appears on office walls coast to coast, pinned there by disgruntled employees who have made Dilbert their ’90s-style symbol of passive resistance.
In fact Dilbert, the strip, is carried in more than 1,000 newspapers in 32 countries (total readership: 60 million). It has simultaneously infiltrated the Internet, and the just-released Dilbert Principle, Adams’s cartoon-narrative book, quickly soared to No. 2 on The New York Times bestseller list. A former applications engineer at Pacific Bell, Adams, who turns 39 in June, figures success just comes from knowing the territory—which includes dimwit bosses (redundant, Dilbert would say), pointless meetings (ditto), accounting trolls and corporatespeak. “It happens that I had a cubicle-eye perspective,” says Adams, who until last year occupied enclosure 4S700R at Pacific Bell in San Ramon, Calif.
His inside knowledge of the indignities suffered by workers has made him “an institution in Silicon Valley,” says Scott Wilder, a senior manager at Berkeley-based Global Network Navigator, Inc. Not that Adams holds a grudge against big business per se—just against idiots. “Unfortunately,” he explains, “the world is full of them, and a disproportionate number are promoted to management.” When Adams’s Dilbert Principle, which holds that managers “were usually the people you missed least from the productive level,” was published in The Wall Street Journal last year, it proved a turning point. Adams had a standing agreement that he would resign from PacBell whenever the public-relations value of having him no longer paid his way—and his boss took him up on it.
Even without a cubicle to go to, Adams keeps a strict regimen. He rises at 6 and heads to the neatly cluttered office in the two-story tract home in Dublin, Calif., he shares with longtime girlfriend Pam Okasaki, 40, a group product director for Pacific Bell Mobile Services, and cats Freddie and Sarah. He spends an hour or so on his daily Dilbert strip, then repairs to “command central,” a Power Macintosh, where he gets up to 800 messages each day at email@example.com. Then he works on The Dilbert Zone (http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert), an Internet page that includes cartoons and information about Adams and his characters: Dogbert (goal: to conquer the world), Catbert (a merciless human-resources director) and Ratbert (a cheerful rodent worker). To say nothing of the nameless dimwit Boss, whose hair peaks in two devil-like horns.
There were more than a few bumps on the road to fame. Growing up in Windham, N.Y., near Albany, the second child of Virginia Adams, a homemaker and assembly-line worker, and her husband, Paul, a postal clerk, Scott remembers his mother telling him he could do anything. “She said I could be President. I wanted to be Charles Schulz.” But almost everyone tried to discourage him. Rejected by the Famous Artists School at 11 (you had to be 12 to get in), Adams got the lowest class grade in a college drawing class at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., and later had his cartoons rejected by Playboy, The New Yorker and a long list of syndicators.
After his early failures, Adams chose economics for his college major. Heading to California after graduation, he took a job as a bank teller (and was robbed twice at gunpoint), got his MBA at Berkeley and hired on in 1986 at PacBell. Dilbert was doodled into existence as a composite of his co-workers. “They all had little potato-shaped bodies, and they had glasses,” says Adams. Nameless at first, his character was christened at a name-the-nerd office contest. But it wasn’t until 1989 that United Media (which also syndicates Peanuts) introduced Dilbert’s downsized, upended management-afflicted world to the nation. In 1993, Adams was the first cartoonist to add his e-mail address to his strip, and Dilbert took off.
Now, he sighs contentedly, “I could probably lock my door and never see another human as long as I had my cats and computer.” With Dilbert blanketing the workplace world, Adams is on the go. He launches Dilbert greeting cards in June and confesses to dreams of a Dilbertland. As Dogbert would say, he’s reaching Nerdvana.
GABRIELLE SAVERI in Dublin