The Dilbert Principle Comic strip: Cartoonist Scott Adams skewers management in his pointed and popular "Dilbert." Office workers everywhere are nodding in agreement.

January 01, 1996|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DUBLIN, Calif. -- We are approaching Nerdvana, as Dogbert would say. Scott Adams climbs the stairs into his study, the hub of a thriving revenge-of-the-nerds empire.

It is here, in an office just slightly bigger than a cubicle, that Mr. Adams transforms tales of idiotic bosses and meaningless empowerment teams into humor, and thus into the life of Dilbert, the chinless comic-strip hero to millions of cubicle-confined workers.

Powerless, socially awkward, doomed to work for inept superiors, Dilbert the overweight engineer slogs through corporate life in the '90s. He's also the star of the fastest growing comic strip in America, currently featured in 800 newspapers (including a debut in The Sun today) and read by an estimated 60 million people daily.

As it happens, there are a lot of Dilberts out there. From the turbo Macintosh in Mr. Adams' office, the day's e-mail beckons: 239 messages from the disgruntled employee masses for whom Dilbert speaks.

Since Mr. Adams published his Internet address (scottadamol.com) in 1993, he has been deluged by questions from readers who wonder how he knows the exact level of ineptitude with which their company operates.

He has his favorite messages, including the allegedly the manager who offered an incentive program to find and fix software bugs: $20 for each bug found by the quality assurance staff and $20 for each bug fixed by the programmers, who are also the people who create the bugs. The plan was rethought after an underground economy in bugs developed and one employee netted $1,700 the first week.

Dilbert understands this kind of management thinking because he lives with it. Mr. Adams calls it the Dilbert Principle.

"This is historically unique," he says. "If you went back even 20 years, you'd find people maybe disliked their boss, but for the most part the boss was someone who both knew your job and his own job.

"We're in this unique period where the boss doesn't know your job, and that's in many ways why they were promoted, because they were the least capable of doing the technical work."

He adds, "You take them out of the productive flow, which makes the most sense in the short term, and everyone thinks management is this thing, how hard could it be?"

Dilbert's boss doesn't sweat the management tasks. With hair swooping up the sides of his head like two horns, he serves up indignities such as, "I decided to recognize you for your job performance. So I named one of my pencils after you." Even Dogbert, his bespectacled hound, gives Dilbert grief. The one thing that keeps Dilbert going is his love of technology, which also seems to hamper his ability to communicate with humans.

"Dilbert's kind of a survivor," says Mr. Adams. "He's doing what he can to keep his dignity intact."

Mr. Adams, 38, cultivated that survival skill himself after receiving an economics degree from Hartwick College and an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley. He entered 17 years of cubicle employment, including a stint as a computer programmer for Crocker National Bank in San Francisco and, most recently, a post in cubicle NS900 at Pacific Bell, where he worked as a $65,000-a-year applications engineer.

He left his day job last June when, after six years of "Dilbert" syndication, sales of more than a half million books (with titles such as "Build a Better Life by Stealing Office Supplies") and a series of mobbed speaking engagements, he was earning more than all but the top executives at PacBell.

When word leaked out that Mr. Adams had in fact been asked to leave PacBell, cyberspace hummed with speculation that his bosses had stopped being amused at seeing themselves in the funny pages. But Mr. Adams says there's more to the story. He'd offered to leave the company at some unspecified point when his "costs exceeded benefits" and had made it clear his priority was cartooning.

A new boss took Mr. Adams up on his offer. "My boss called me and said he had a budget problem and he needed somebody to do different things than I was capable of doing, so he asked me to leave," Mr. Adams says.

Now he works at home east of San Francisco in a modest, very neat townhouse he shares with his girlfriend, a PacBell manager. Because her exercise bike has nowhere to park but in the living room, Mr. Adams says they'll be moving to bigger digs.

Will success take the Dilbert out of Adams? "I don't think I'll ever forget what it feels like to sit in a cubicle and realize you've been there for eight hours and everything you did today will become unimportant in the next reorganization," he says.

Mr. Adams' view of the business world has struck a nerve not only with workers, but with management gurus. Even as he mocks such management concepts as "re-engineering," Michael Hammer, the well-known promoter of re-engineering, has called Mr. Adams "the pre-eminent business thinker of the late 20th century."

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