Scott Adams : Engineer of Dilbert
Engineer, International Cartoonist
By : Vicky Hendley
Cartoonist Scott Adams' Dilbert is the poster boy of hapless office workers everywhere, and may be the most well-known engineer anywhere.
By Vicky Hendley
Scott Adams packed up his cubicle at Pacific Bell just about a year ago, another victim of corporate downsizing. But the 39-year-old computer engineer isn't particularly upset over the "elimination of employment security policy" (PacBell's term for layoffs). He has his internationally successful comic strip character Dilbert, a recent Newsweek magazine cover boy, to fill his time and pad his bank account. Adams, an M.B.A.-turned-engineer-turned-cartoonist, is creator of the most visible fictional engineer since Star Trek 's Scotty.
Dilbert's world is a corporate hell inhabited by fellow engineers Wally and Alice, talking animals (including the megalomaniacal Dogbert), accounting trolls, and other bizarre players. The strip runs in more than 1,000 newspapers, and Dilbert's business/humor book of adventures in the workplace, The Dilbert Principle, is a regular at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Talking with Adams from his home in northern California, it's hard to know whether he's joking or serious as he ponders the significance of his comic strip exposé of corporate tyranny and lays out his plans for world domination. Either way, the man who engineered engineering onto the funny pages is obviously sincere in his respect for the profession while still being very funny in his view of the life of an engineer.
PRISM: Engineering students routinely use Dilbert on their shirts and web pages, and you get hundreds of e-mail messages from working engineers. What do you think of Dilbert becoming an icon for engineers and other downtrodden office workers?
ADAMS: You're breaching on two different subjects. One is the illegal use of Dilbert, which of course I'll leave to the lawyers to address (laughter). But as far as Dilbert as an icon, I like it, I guess. That was always kind of the goal.
Dilbert was a composite of my co-workers at Pacific Bell and at Crocker Bank. I always worked in these technical parts of the company, usually surrounded by computer engineer-type people.
PRISM: But you have an M.B.A., right?
ADAMS: I do, so my background is not engineering, except by job experience. I just began drawing the people around me at work. Of course I wanted to become a rich-and-famous cartoonist, but I didn't choose Dilbert because I thought he would be the best way to get there. He was just the only thing around me that I had to draw.
PRISM: Is Dilbert educating Americans about engineers, making engineers more visible?
ADAMS: Yeah, oddly enough. Maybe not in a way that engineers would like. I get a lot of mail from people who are going to school to be engineers, and they say, "Please tell me this is not what it's really like!"
PRISM: How do you answer that question?
ADAMS: I tell them it's just like that; it's a documentary (laughter). I still tell people that engineering is probably the best job there is if you're going to do the corporate routine. But unfortunately, and this is part of the reason the strip is so popular, it does mirror real life to some extent.
PRISM: Some engineers say Dilbert is just too true to life.
ADAMS: That's a big problem I have, trying to keep the strip more bizarre than real life. It's an ever-growing challenge. I think those people working for government contractors, particularly aerospace industry people, have decided that they have it worse because they have government rules as well as corporate rules, and they have the problem that if something goes wrong thousands of people die. It's the worst of all worlds. I get more mail from aerospace industry people than anyone else.
PRISM: Have you gotten many negative reactions from engineers?
ADAMS: I get very, very few negative comments, maybe one in a thousand. Most engineers are just glad to be recognized. It's what I call the "Oprah Effect": People will go on daytime TV and admit all manner of embarrassing and illegal acts so they can be famous for a little while. The cartoon has that same impact. People are just so happy that I'm talking about engineers that it doesn't matter what I say. They're far more interested in being recognized than in being respected.
PRISM: What do engineers need to know that engineering schools do not seem to be teaching them?
ADAMS: I think dealing with marketing people is the hardest thing. And, in particular, they have to learn how to be less honest. Nothing gets engineers in more trouble than being honest. I recently heard this story about an engineer who was manning a booth at a trade show. As a customer would come up, the engineer would take the company's marketing brochure, pull out a pen, and line out all the things that were lies, correct them, then give the customer a brochure. He made the mistake of doing that same thing when a senior executive from his company came up. He didn't know the man was an executive with his company; he thought he was a customer. Apparently that was his last day of work.
PRISM: It sounds like something right out of your strip.
ADAMS: It does. And it probably will be.
PRISM: Do you see Dilbert as a role model?
ADAMS: Well, of course he is an unusually sexy guy. A lot of people tell me that they are going into the engineering field just so they can attract members of the opposite sex. I think that is a worthy goal and I have no doubt Dilbert is inspiring them in that way.
PRISM: A generation of engineers and scientists were inspired by Star Trek. Is Dilbert the "Scotty" of the '90s?
ADAMS: In a way. You're right about Star Trek leading the way. Star Trek was the first place where an engineer was thought to be someone who could save the universe. I think Dilbert is at least giving people the idea that engineers exist. Poor visibility is one of the reasons engineering hasn't attracted more people. When I grew up, if you had mentioned engineering, I wouldn't have known what it was. But if you read Dilbert, whether you like it or you're afraid of it, you know what he's doing. You know he's in meetings; you know he's doing things with his computer; you know he's inventing things; you know he's working on things with marketing. You actually have a pretty good idea of what an engineer does.
PRISM: You provide an entire chapter on engineers in your book, The Dilbert Principle, which has topped best sellers lists for several months now. It's quite a contrast to most business books on the market. Were you surprised it has been such a hit?
ADAMS: No, it was all a part of my grand plan for world conquest (laughter). First the best-selling book, and then the Dilbertland theme park. I had high hopes for the book, and being an optimist I did think it would do OK, and I'm quite happy about it.
PRISM: Do you think the book should be required reading for engineering students?
ADAMS: I think it should be required reading for anybody who's got 20 bucks. There are a lot of business schools who are putting it on recommended reading lists and are using the strip to teach their students. I haven't heard about any engineering schools, however . . .
PRISM: What do you get Dilbert or any other engineer for the holidays?
ADAMS: Dilbert merchandise has to be on top of the list. Then I would say maybe access time on the Internet would be good.
PRISM: You talk about engineers being sex symbols, but there seems to be a lack of dating and social graces among your characters.
ADAMS: There used to be a lot more dating situations when the strip started. But people wrote to me after I put my e-mail address in the strip and said, "You know that dating stuff is OK, but give us more bad-office humor." So being the opportunist that I am, I changed the strip to make more money, and it seems to be doing very well.
PRISM: Is your strip popular overseas, or is it an American phenomenon?
ADAMS: It's in 32 countries.
PRISM: So bad office environments are universal?
ADAMS: Yes, that's one of the things that America exports very well. We've sent neckties and bad managers everywhere.
PRISM: Will Dilbert ever make it to management?
ADAMS: He has flirted with it a few times in the past. There was the strip where he removed the pencil Excalibert from the pencil sharpener, and as legend required, he rose to CEO, but he didn't last long. When the first merger came along, the buying company's lawyers chewed off his clothes. I don't think he'll become anything but a team leader any time soon.
PRISM: A team leader and a role model.
ADAMS: And a sex symbol.
Scott Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and through The Dilbert ZoneWeb page.
Vicky Hendley is associate editor of ASEE PRISM.
Please send comments on this article to: email@example.com .