Articles : Scott Adams Article

Breaking out of cubicle life
Scott Adams Article

Breaking out of cubicle life

When the corporate world became too much, this engineer-turned-cartoonist launched a rebellion
Silicon Valley Biz Ink
By Mark Ivey

It's been 25 years, but Scott Adams still remembers his first real encounter with The Corporate Management. He was only 22, trying to make it as a young bank teller at Crocker National Bank in San Francisco when he was called into the senior vice president's office. Looking up at the 6-foot, 9-inch executive, Adams didn't know what to expect. Then the manager spoke.

"Your shoes," he said, pointing to Adams well-worn shoes, "They're pretty scruffy, and honestly, embarrassing. Do something ..."

Adams scampered back to his cubicle, humiliated. How would he ever become a big shot banker if his shoes didn't measure up?

It was a rough start for Adams, but it was these kinds of experiences that would later provide a launching pad for a new career -- not as a banker, but as a cartoonist. In 1989, he launched Dilbert, exploring the curious world of corporate America through the eyes of a bespectacled, geeky little cartoon character. The stuff that office workers silently had to deal with every day -- incompetent bosses, petty rules and inflated egos -- now became the brunt of daily jokes in Dilbert's world.

The cubicle world hasn't been the same since.

Today Dilbert is read by more than 1 million readers in 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries, putting him behind only a few superstar cartoons like Garfield and Peanuts. There are Dilbert books and a slew of other products, with even a product line for Dilbert's sidekick, Dogbert.

Still, Adams insists he isn't your everyday cartoonist. "I'm more of an entrepreneur who draws cartoons, than an artist with a big 'A'," he says. And Dilbert may not have ever taken off were it not for a turn of events in the late 1980s.

Adams' climb to fame and fortune is, at least in part, a story about breaking out of the corporate pack and daring to follow his own unorthodox ideas.

He clearly didn't start out to be a world famous cartoonist. He grew up in Windham, New York, in the Catskill Mountains, the son of a postal worker, and earned a BA in economics from Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY. He only took one art class in college -- and scored near the bottom.

By the late 1980s he'd left Crocker to join Pac Bell as a budget manager, and was eventually moved into engineering. He was constantly doodling and entertaining co-workers with Dilbert-like cartoons, while using other cartoons in his presentations, said Marsha McElroy, a former colleague at Pac Bell. Meantime he was earning an MBA, attending night classes at UC Berkeley. The business training would prove critical later in marketing Dilbert.

Adams knew he had a skill. But who wanted to hire a self-described "wise-ass" corporate cartoonist?

Then, one day, he stumbled across a PBS TV show on "how to become a cartoonist." Adams wrote the show host, Jack Cassidy, who responded with tips on getting syndicated. Adams gave it a shot, but got nowhere -- all his submissions were rejected by newspaper syndication services. One editor suggested he team up with a real artist.

Adams put the cartoons away and returned to his cubicle job. Then, about a year later, he received a letter. It was from Cassidy, who was curious to see if he'd stayed with the cartoons.

He hadn't -- but the letter sparked Adams' interest again. He resubmitted 50 cartoons to the syndicators again. This time he got a call from United Features Syndicate, which signed him to a six-month pilot contract.

It was the Big Break.

"If not for Cassidy's letter I would have dropped it," Adams said.

Adams hit a gusher with Dilbert (Adams' boss came up with the name) when he moved him into an office setting from what had been predominantly a home environment, and added his personal e-mail address -- a rarity in 1989. Suddenly, he was swamped with letters from cubicle workers seeking to vent their frustrations. Meantime, companies were starting to downsize and outsource jobs, creating a worker backlash. By the mid 1990s, Dilbert had become the poster boy of the cubicle world, the voice of the disenfranchised.

Adams continued working at Pac Bell for another six years, rising at 5 am to draw his cartoons. The cartoon seemed to come naturally to him. It helped that he actually thought like an engineer, and had a wickedly irreverent sense of humor.

Today, Adams still spends about 75 percent of his time on Dilbert. He's currently working out of a stylish, but modestly furnished apartment in Dublin. Starting his day at 6 a.m., armed with his cup of tea, he draws his cartoons, an hour or so task (three hours for Sunday strips). At night, he scans it on the computer and uses Photoshop to clean up the graphics, finally sending it in to his editor at United.

He doesn't know exactly where the cartoon strip is going when he first starts drawing it. "I know the concept, and I put the characters in their places. Then I just take it to the extreme, and see where it goes."

His latest inventions include "Dilbert House" online, a virtual "perfect" house (www.dilbert.com) that includes a special cat bathroom (he has a black cat). He also now speaks frequently to business groups about his unusual journey.

But he's also involved in some distinctly non-Dilbert activities. He owns two restaurants in Dublin and Pleasanton, and he's written two fiction books, God's Debris: A Thought Experiment and The Religion War, which deal with serious subjects such as the nature of God.

This would appear to go against the grain of a brand builder. But Adams simply said he's only following his passions. "I'm not sure why I do anything. When I started Dilbert I had 29 other ideas É I follow my impulses, and see where they lead me."

People close to Adams, now 47, characterize him as brilliant, an idea-a-minute guy who has become more at ease with himself since his success. "He's come out of his shell. He's more comfortable, confident," said Stacey Belkin, who he hired several years ago to manage his restaurants, even naming Stacey's Cafe after her. "Yet, he's stayed pretty humble."

Humble or not, fame brings him new attention. Once on a plane, he noticed people on each side reading his Dilbert cartoons. "It's a strange feeling," he said. "Sometimes I feel like a spectator, watching someone else go through this."

But at least he doesn't have to worry about his shoes.

Mark Ivey (www.markivey.com) is an executive speechwriter, author and former syndicated newspaper columnist who worked out of a cubicle at Intel in the 1990s.