Few people know more about the desperate insanity--or inanity--of cubicle culture than Adams. As creator of the popular Dilbert comic strip, Adams has built a successful Dilbert empire--both online and off--lampooning the oddness that comes with working within a corporation's four walls.
His strip about a zany office worker has appeared in 2,000 papers in 65 countries and 25 languages, as well as on the Web at his very own site, Dilbert.com, which receives over 1.4 million unique visitors per month.
Adams, who attributes some of Dilbert's popularity to the Internet, more recently made an agreement with search engine company Google, which temporarilyits logo to feature "doodles" of Dilbert, his pinecone-haired boss and his wacky co-workers on the Google home page.
A certified hypnotist, a vegetarian and an entrepreneur (he created a vegetarian burrito), Adams' resume includes pit stops as computer programmer, bank teller (he was robbed twice at gunpoint), product manager, supervisor and financial analyst. But beyond all that, Adams has provided his readers with a little something to help make their cubicle lives a little brighter: humor.
CNET News.com recently caught up with Adams, who discussed the vagaries of cubicle culture and the impact of the Internet on cartoonists--not to mention the lessons that Dilbert learned during the dot-com boom and bust.
Q: When did you create your Web site?
A: I'm real bad with dates. But I'm going to say 1995.
How well has it worked for you? I noticed you have a subscription service set up.
Yeah. We've got two things going, so you can either see the comic on the Web or you can have it e-mailed to you every day. The e-mail service is newer and it's just growing...we may get something like 100,000 new subscribers by the end of this week just from the Google placement.
How did you wind up working with Google, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Well, it was a strange coincidence. One day I was at lunch and I asked somebody who knows a lot about a lot of things what search engine he used. He said he only used Google. I (had) never really used it. So I went home and I used it a few times. I liked it. And next thing I know, Google contacted me out of the blue. It was just a strange coincidence and they had decided that they wanted to maybe feature some cartoonists playing with their logo and wanted to ask me if I wanted to be the first. I thought that sounded like fun because they have a zillion people go to their site and some of them would click on it and end up at the Dilbert site or sign up for Dilbert by e-mail. So that seemed like a good arrangement for both of us.
Since the Google partnership you have had about 100,000 new subscribers this week?
That's what I expect. This morning (May 23) we were over 80,000.
Speaking of the Internet, how has the Web changed things for cartoonists like yourself?
I owe at least half of all the popularity and success of the strip...(to) the Internet.
What do you mean?
We ended up winning a whole bunch of votes because people had already become fans on the Internet. So when the newspapers said, "Hey what kind of cartoons do you want to see in the newspaper," rather than saying what you might think--which is, "I already see it on the Internet so I don't need it in the paper"--they all voted for it. It was quite counterintuitive, but I owe at least half of all the popularity and success of the strip...(to) the Internet.
Can you walk me through the creative process? How do you decide whether an idea will work or not in a strip?
Well, I get most of my ideas from the Internet. People are sending me hundreds of ideas every day. So I cull from there and I look to see what seems funny to me too. Usually they don't have jokes; it's just the situation. They'll say, "My boss is a so and so," or "He does this," and that is apparently funny. And then I can build on it or I discard it immediately. But I kind of look for what gives me a visceral reaction. It actually has to feel funny in your body.
Did you get any special inspiration for your cartoon strip from some of the insanity that masqueraded as normality during the dot-com era?
Actually, the dot-com era was very tough for me because I live entirely on gripes...the kind of complaints (from) the people who were sure they were being abused by their management. And during the whole dot-com bubble, I couldn't get anybody to complain because everyone thought that any problems they had were their own fault.
The psychology seemed to be that so many people knew so many people getting rich--or so they thought--that if they weren't also getting rich it's just because they weren't taking the risk of going across the street. So it just didn't seem like it was their boss' problem anymore; it seemed like it was their problem. And luckily, in the world of Dilbert, the economy cooled off. Things are good for me again.
What lessons have you or Dilbert learned from the dot-com boom and bust?
Well, I (have) this new book coming out, "Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel," and I would lump the dot-coms in with Enron and Merrill Lynch and Arthur Andersen and all these companies that are just major weasels. My main thing is that anybody who invests in individual stock just doesn't understand that the management is just as likely to be making up stuff as the publisher. I think it used to be true that you could more or less trust them because the threat of getting caught would keep them honest. But that doesn't even seem to make a difference anymore. It just seems (like) widespread lying everywhere.
Do you have any advice for the countless number of people who have been laid off, who have been hard hit by the dot-com bust?
I probably talked to more laid-off people than just about anybody in the world because they tend to vent to me. They come up to me. They tell me that they've been laid off. If somebody's been laid off and a year has passed, I ask them if they are happier now than they were just before they got laid off, not when they knew that they were going to get laid off. Almost everybody is happier. So the track record seems to be, you get laid off, you're unhappy for a little while, but in the long run whatever it was about the company that was bad that made you get laid off, you're much happier to be somewhere else.
How about for the managers running these dot-com companies? Do you have any advice for them?
Well, I would sell my stock high. Gosh, if anybody had any wisdom for managers and dot-com companies, I'm sure it would've gotten to them by now. Nah...that's why I'm a critic and not a manager.
So you get lots of e-mails from people around the country recounting their war stories from corporate America. Judging from what they're saying, do you think cubicle culture is getting more absurd, or is there light at the end of the tunnel?
Actually, the dot-com era was very tough for me because I live entirely on gripes.
You've built a career lampooning some of the more outrageous foibles of corporate life. You worked in tech at Pacific Bell and you've been an observer of the scene in Silicon Valley throughout the dot-com era. Do you think technology companies are any more or less prone to goofy bureaucratic behavior?
Well. You got a few things going on. First of all, no one is worse off than the aerospace industry. They've got the triple whammy going on. They've got the problem that if they do something wrong, a plane goes down and they've got government contracts...you name it. The other thing is that you've got all these young people who are not necessarily skilled mangers running billion-dollar companies, and that can't be good.
Do you think the Dilbert principle--"The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage--management."--is more or less true of high-technology companies, given how fast things move in the sector?
Yeah. It's more true of high-tech companies because it's all the more important that you have the most skilled workers doing the real work. So I would think you would just have to get rid of the deadwood by putting them in management.
If Dilbert's boss ran a technology company, which one would it be?
I don't think it would be fair to name names. That's a terrible thing to hang on somebody.
What kind of PC does Dilbert buy?
He's a Unix, Windows and Mac animal.
Does he use a PDA?
Yes he does.
How about a flat screen versus a regular monitor?
He has a flat screen now, if you've been watching the script recently. Partly because it saves me ink.
I understand you've had numerous types of jobs involving technology and finance.
The first half of my 16 years or so were at Crocker National Bank and I had most of my jobs there: I was a teller...I was a management trainee, a computer programmer, financial budget guy, a supervisor, a product manger and I was a lending officer.
And in all those positions, you had a little cubicle?
Actually, I had an office for one of them. But most of them were cubicles, yes.
How did you end up becoming a cartoonist?
Well, then there was Pacific Bell eight years after the bank. Mostly there I was doing financial work and then later became an engineer.
And on the side you did a lot of drawing?
Yes. Lots of doodling. I would draw pictures at work and sometimes I would use them in my work presentations.
How did you come up with the character Dilbert? And where did you get the name?
The physical body was somebody I worked with at Crocker Bank, so he just kind of looked like that character. I thought it was such an interesting look. I liked drawing him. He got his name a few years later when I had a name contest in my cubicle and I drew him on my white board and asked people to combine the name and when someone suggested the name Dilbert, I realized we had a winner.
Can you explain to me how you became a cartoonist full time, jumping from working at Pacific Bell?
I'll give you the Reader's Digest version. Basically, what you do is buy a book of how to become a cartoonist, which doesn't tell you how to draw. But it tells you who to submit your cartoons to, so I submitted some cartoons for some magazines and then they came back rejected. Then I waited about a year. A kindly cartoonist gave me some encouragement and I decided to try again...this time, instead of magazines I did some comic strips and submitted them to the cartoon syndicates, following the direction of the book. There are about half-a-dozen places that everybody sends cartoons to--and they all rejected me except for United Media.
And when did United Media accept your work?
(In) 1988 they accepted it. Then in 1989 it was published.
Since May is a time of graduation, there are a lot of young people entering the "real world." Do you have any advice for them?
Well, I would look at their first big corporate job. Certainly, many of them will have one as kind of a training program. They should be looking at it as a way of learning as much as they can toward helping them run their own business. That's how I always did it. I always thought of it as a paid training class.
Were there any life-changing events that happened to you along the way to get where you are now?
Well, yeah, all of them (laughing). I think I have too many to even know where to start. I mean, they're all life-changing events.
You're also a certified hypnotist? How did you become interested in hypnotism?
Originally I was interested because my mother was hypnotized when she gave birth to my sister and used no drugs and felt no pain. She was awake the whole time. I was impressed by that. I think that's what made me originally curious about it. Then when I was a young man in my 20s, I took a course on how to be a hypnotist. I didn't do it professionally but I was considering that as a career choice at the time.
What made you decide not to go in that direction?
It was actually too hard. There's a whole lot of energy to hypnotize a person and when you calculate how much money you can make for how much work you're doing, you can't get rich that way.
Any other hobbies?
I play tennis. In fact I'll be playing in an hour.
Were there other cartoonists that you admired when you were growing up?
Yeah. I always wanted to be Charles Schultz. And of course, I liked Mad Magazine. When I was a kid they were all good.
What advice would you give to young people today who aspire to be cartoonists?
I have a file full of cartoonists' resources and tips because people write me and ask me that just about every day. So if anybody wants to send me an e-mail, I could give them the whole deal.
In terms of your partnership with Google, are you looking to partner with other companies?
Well, this was kind of a one-off (thing). There's nothing quite like the specific situation, but we're always looking for anything that makes sense. We'll always listen to a deal.