A World Of His Own
Scott Adams's dream office does more than just give him a place to create his Dilbert universe. It affords him the life he wants to live
Dilbert would simply drool.
Cartoonist Scott Adams's home office is light-years away from the soulless universe of cubicles inhabited by his comic-strip alter ego.
There's a pool table. A 35-inch TV/DVD player. A tiny home gym. A leather couch. A bathroom. Tartan wall coverings in red and hunter green. And the latest addition: a screened-in porch, decorated with wicker furniture, overlooking the wooded neighborhood surrounding Adams's northern California home. "On these warm California days, I can open the double glass doors and the office seems twice as big," says Adams, a 44-year-old transplant from Windham, N.Y. "It's a whole lot like sitting on the porch, even if you're inside."
Adams can be forgiven for swooning over his second-floor studio, created from space formerly occupied by two bedrooms. After all, he spent a long time -- 16 years, to be precise -- crammed into the same kind of numbingly uniform beige boxes that provide the backdrop for Dilbert, the comic strip whose eponymous nerdy engineer and his travails both mirror and lambaste American corporate culture.
At his most recent day job, Adams spent his working hours hunched over a computer in one of thousands of identical cubes at Pacific Bell's offices in San Ramon, Calif. He still remembers the number of his last little box: 4S750R ("fourth floor, south wing, zone 750, cubicle R"). Before that, his work habitat was a virtually identical cube at Crocker National Bank, in San Francisco. It was his experiences in the bowels of the bank's headquarters that inspired Dilbert's office adventures. His job wasn't all that bad, Adams says now, except that "every day I went to that cubicle, a little bit of my life force was sucked out of my body."
Obviously, Adams's current setup offers a diverting alternative to the cell-like cube world. But his office isn't just for play. It's clearly a work space, dominated by what Adams calls "the world's coolest desk," which was built to his specifications. The large, bat-wing-shaped table -- 3.5 feet wide and 16 feet long, from wing tip to wing tip -- features a panel in the middle that Adams can pull up and lock into place, creating a slanted drawing table. When he's not sketching Dilbert cartoons, he drops the panel back into the desk to create a huge, flat working surface. There's plenty of room for two computers -- a PC and a Macintosh -- as well as a printer, a fax machine, a scanner, a paper cutter, a phone, and a lamp. And if Adams needs still more space, he can transfer some of the clutter to custom-made bookshelves and file cabinets to his heart's content.
It wasn't always that way. Initially, Adams doodled at work, drawing pictures that lampooned his colleagues and managers. In the late 1980s, after reading a book about how to get syndicated, he persuaded United Media to distribute his cartoon strip, which initially ran in 50 newspapers. While still working full-time, he began drawing Dilbert in the living room of his apartment in Alameda, Calif., using a kitchen table left behind by a previous tenant.
Later, as the strip's popularity grew, Adams graduated to a bedroom office outfitted with an odd assortment of tables. In his current office he created a jury-rigged desk, which worked just fine but was rather less impressive than the bat-wing model he uses now. "It was a cobbled-together series of things that included an old dining-room table from another house, an old breakfast-nook table, and a dresser that I wasn't using anymore and that was about the same height as the tables," he says. "There was one more piece I can't even remember right now -- except that it didn't belong there."
That was before Dilbert's success changed Scott Adams's life. Now, besides drawing the cartoon strip, which runs in 2,000 newspapers in more than 50 countries, he has helped design licensed Dilbert products ranging from coffee mugs to computer games. He's also compiled more than a dozen Dilbert comic-strip collections and written several business books. The best-known of his books, The Dilbert Principle, topped the New York Times best-seller list in 1996. A Dilbert prime-time animated series on the UPN network fared less well: despite boasting an all-star voice cast that included Daniel Stern and Chris Elliott, the show was canceled last year.
Adams, a vegetarian, recently spent $1 million to launch a company that makes and markets the convenient, nutritious, and meatless meals he's always craved but rarely finds in supermarkets. Specialties include the "Dilberito," a frozen burrito that can be eaten with one hand so that the busy working nerd can keep typing with the other. And he co-owns Stacey's CafÉ, in nearby Pleasanton, a sunny neighborhood bistro that he describes as "a white-tablecloth type of restaurant, a nice date place."
As the man who has personally skewered more managers than anybody else in America, Adams insists that in his roles as company cofounder and restaurateur he does his best never to become the evil pointy-haired boss from his comic strip -- rather, he's just the "investing partner," he says. Food consultant Jack Parker, now president of Scott Adams Foods, runs the business from New Jersey. And at Stacey's, the only really hands-on thing Adams has done is to add one item to the menu: "Scott's Favorite Pasta," which consists of penne with broccoli, walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and a garlic-and-olive-oil sauce. He also tweaked the menu's wording so that it cheerfully informs diners that "no matter how finicky you are, our servers are trained to resist the urge to slap you senseless." And yes, you can buy Dilbert paraphernalia -- books, dolls, and neckties that Adams has autographed -- at the bar.
The one thing Adams has all but abandoned is public speaking -- especially if it involves travel. And that massive lifestyle change figured into his decision to revamp his home office. He wanted to create a place where he could spend a lot of time -- both by himself and in meetings with business visitors. "I went through a five-year period of being on the road once or twice a week" doing speaking tours and book signings and other promotional appearances, Adams recalls. "That was such a hideously unpleasant experience that now I just cower in my office doing my best Howard Hughes imitation." Then he corrects himself: "Not Howard Hughes. More of a cross between J.D. Salinger and the Unabomber."
So now Adams spends more time in the rambling home he shares with his longtime girlfriend, Pam Okasaki, and their two cats. But he gets a surprising number of interruptions for somebody living in a gated community in a small town 30 miles east of San Francisco. He does occasional photo shoots at home, and he regularly meets there with people involved with the comic strip, his food company, his restaurant, or other ventures he's constantly cooking up. Sometimes he makes the 25-minute drive to Stacey's -- which he calls "my extended office" -- to meet with somebody or just to take a break.
Like Dilbert, Adams loves computer hardware and high-tech gadgets. So he's stocked his home office with plenty of both. He says he upgrades his computers only once every three years, acknowledging that realistically, " upgrade really just means 'throw it away and get a new one."
Adams admits to making some bad home-office choices, notably the little radio setup he bought to do remote studio-quality broadcasts over a high-speed digital telephone line. The problem: his equipment was so sophisticated that many small radio stations didn't know how to make it work on their end. "Half the time they'd just say, 'Uh, we don't have the engineer here, so why don't you just call us on the regular phone?" Adams says sadly. "Turned out to be not nearly as cool as I thought it would be."
He's got higher hopes for videoconferencing through his PC. "I've got a little camera, and I just use it with normal Microsoft NetMeeting software. I'll call, for example, my parents in Florida; they've got a high-speed line. Then I hit two buttons, and I'm talking to Mom face-to-face." Cool, yes, but does he ever use that capability for business? "I want to use it for work, but I can't find anybody who cares about it," he says, laughing. "I would love to find some excuse to call anybody. If there's anybody who has a videoconferencing setup on their end, tell 'em to send me an E-mail and maybe I'll give 'em a call." (Adams is quite serious about that. Any Inc. Technology reader who qualifies is invited to send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Surprisingly, for a gadget guy, Adams doesn't use a handheld computer, mostly because -- unlike Dilbert and his ilk -- he no longer runs from meeting to meeting. "I would love to have an excuse for using one," he says. "But I'm either in my office, so I've got my information on one of my two machines here, or I've got it on my laptop -- or I don't need it. I just can't imagine there being a time when I'm at the gym or playing tennis and I just gotta look up somebody's address."
It might seem that Adams courts procrastination by having so many distractions at his fingertips -- from all those tech toys to the home-theater system to that pleasant, breezy porch. But he insists that distraction is exactly what he wants. "Nobody has a perfect balance," he says. "Everybody's either fighting to get more leisure or to get more work done. I'm naturally inclined to do the work. So I'm fighting for more leisure time, not looking to avoid it."
In fact, one of the big-time advantages to working at home is what Adams calls "the microvacation." He describes it like this: "I've got two wonderful cats, and groceries downstairs, and in the backyard I've got a swimming pool and a sports court," he says, referring to his combination basketball, volleyball, and badminton court. "So I can very quickly take 30 minutes, or even 10 minutes, of vacation time. It's amazingly convenient. It lets you pack a lot of hours into the day and still not feel overtaxed." While working for the bank or at Pacific Bell, he might have taken a break by weaving through the cube maze to the company vending machines. Now he's more likely to run out to the backyard and plant a few tomatoes in containers or hit the court to shoot baskets.
But even with the mother of all home offices, Adams doesn't have absolutely everything he'd like. What's missing? "A fireplace," he says without hesitation. "Also, it would be great to look at the ocean. But that's asking a lot, because I don't want to move. I'd just like the ocean to come to me."
Although Adams now works exclusively at home, he insists he's still in touch with Dilbert's decidedly less-inviting corporate world. Adams, the first major cartoonist to include an E-mail address in a comic strip, receives a couple hundred messages daily from office workers worldwide. Many pass along stories or ideas for Dilbert and his dysfunctional colleagues. And most reinforce Adams's instincts that office behavior hasn't changed a bit and probably never will. For instance, "if you have some bad news and you know your boss is going to get mad at you for telling him about it, you try to make it sound like good news," Adams says. "That's going to be true in the year 3000."
Adams can't think of a single disadvantage to having left the corporate environment. "I thought I would miss my coworkers, but it turns out the ones you want to see, you can still see outside the office," he says. But don't look for Dilbert to become a home-office maven. Although the comic-strip star and other characters occasionally telecommute, Adams has no plans to move any of them permanently into work spaces like his own.
Meanwhile, Adams spends most of every day at home and at work, in exactly the same spot. "If I'm home and I'm not asleep, I'm in here," Adams says of his office. "I have surrounded myself with all the stuff I like. There are days when I think, 'You know, if I had a refrigerator in here, I would never leave."
Anne Stuart is a senior writer at Inc. Technology.
Adams's SOHO Essentials
- Computer: Dell Dimension XPS with a Dell flat-panel 17-inch monitor, $5,000. Macintosh G3 with Sony 20-inch monitor, $5,000. Toshiba Satellite Pro laptop computer, $2,500. HP Fax-950 plain-paper fax, about $300. HP DeskJet 672C color printer, about $300. HP ScanJet color scanner, about $300. Intel PC camera for videoconferencing on Dell computer, about $150.
- Telecom: SBC wireless digital phone with speakerphone and caller-ID features, $250. Pacific Bell voice-mail service. Ericsson mobile phone with Cingular Wireless PCS service.
- Internet: Pacific Bell DSL line (includes phone and Internet connection), $258 a month. Pacific Bell Internet service, $70 a month. An Ethernet bridge allows the computers to share Internet access. AOL account.
- Desktop: Adobe Photoshop (for comic art), Microsoft Office, Microsoft NetMeeting (for videoconferencing), Internet Explorer, Claris Emailer (E-mail software for the Mac), and QuicKeys (to automate tasks on the Mac).
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