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What made FC Kohli the father of Indian IT industry?

The acknowledged doyen of India's IT industry, Kohli's pioneering efforts in nurturing the sector put both TCS and the country on the global IT map.

November 27, 2020 / 08:53 PM IST
FC Kohli

FC Kohli

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Faqir Chand Kohli, father of the Indian IT industry, passed away on Thursday. Born in 1924 in Peshawar, Kohli lived to the ripe old age of 96. He leaves behind a tall, and unmatched, legacy in the information technology business.

After completing his Bachelor of Science (BSc) from the University of Punjab, Lahore in then-undivided India, Kohli won a scholarship to Queen's University, Canada where he did BSc (Honors) in Electrical Engineering in 1948. He followed this up with a Masters in Electrical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1950.

Kohli joined Tata Electric in 1951, and later the fledgling Tata Consultancy Services in 1969, apparently with some prodding by JRD Tata. Former TCS CEO S. Ramadorai reveals in his book that Kohli was initially reluctant to head what is now the world's most valuable IT firm.

Joining TCS

When TCS was created in 1968, PM Agarwala took over as its Director. He was then the Managing Director of Tata Electric earlier, where Kohli was employed for nearly two decades.

In his book 'TCS Story and Beyond', Ramadorai states Agarwala chose Kohli, who was then the Deputy General Manager at Tata Electric. The book narrates how Kohli came to be a part of TCS.

TCS was based in Nirmal building at Nariman Point, Mumbai. Though the team at TCS was talented, cash flow was a concern. Agarwala then realised that “he needed a strong hand at the top – a headmaster figure – to bring in the order,” Ramadorai notes.

In the mid-1960s, Kohli had used mainframe technology to successfully design computer systems to control the power lines between Mumbai and Pune. This was one of the key reasons why Kohli was prevailed upon -- because he was reluctant to leave Tata Electric -- to join TCS as the general manager in 1969, a post that was created for him, Ramadorai noted in his book.

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The book by Ramadorai and interaction with executives, who know Kohli, offers more insights into how Kohli led the way for TCS and, in turn, the Indian IT industry.

For instance, it took Kohli six months to adjust to the environment, during which time he read technical books to gain knowledge of the subject, since he was an electrical engineer. Something that earned him respect from his subordinates.

At a time when computer prices were exorbitant and knowledge of it even less, Kohli had a tough job ahead. For then it was not clear what lay on the road ahead for TCS -- which was more or less a startup  -- and the nascent IT market.

Transforming IT sector

One of the first things Kohli did was pivot the company to management consulting from its data processing. Through that, the company was able to get its clients to go beyond data processing.

TCS, in an email yesterday, said, "...over the next two decades, (he then led the company) into software development, helping the organization navigate multiple technology waves over two and a half decades by continually investing in people and staying relevant to customers."

Talent, evidently, was one of the key focus areas for the company. He groomed leaders in TCS who then went on to take larger roles including N Chandrasekaran, chairman, Tata Sons, and Ramadorai, who went on to became CEO of TCS.

Kohli recruited engineering talent from premier institutions like IITs, at a time when there were no separate IT departments. For Kohli was convinced, Ramadorai says in the book, that bright young talent was needed to use computers. Indian IT firms are one of the largest recruiters in the Indian engineering colleges till date.

But just merely having a skilled workforce was not enough. Because it was still largely leveraging its parent company’s extended network for revenues. However, the scenario changed after 1973 when the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act came into the picture.

In 1974 Kohli had assumed the role of Director in Charge for TCS and was in a position to drive the TCS vision, notes Ramadorai.

This was a key turning point for TCS. When many companies including IBM left the country, Kohli was instrumental in forming a joint venture (JV) with Burroughs, one of the three mainframe markers at that time. This made it possible for the company to import machines to India but a lot of red tape still had to be dealt with.

Sangeeta Gupta, senior vice president, NASSCOM, pointed out that starting out early would mean working with the government to get the licenses, which would have been a huge challenge - and it was. Kohli managed it to ensure that the JV was possible.

This marked the beginning of what is now called the outsourcing model. TCS became the first company to do so. Through the JV, Burroughs was not only supplying the computers but also wanted TCS programmers to help its US and European clients to migrate to their system from that of their rival's.

The development work was done in India and was implemented at the client location overseas. The developed work would be copied in disks and was sent to the US to their colleagues, who then implemented it.

This business model that was started by Kohli, points out Hexaware founder Atul Nishar, continues to be the core of the IT industry today.

Another key change was targeting the US. After cutting the ties with Burroughs (a new JV was formed between Tata and Burroughs and TCS came out of it) in the late 1970s, TCS set up its first overseas unit in New York to tap into the opportunities to build its revenue stream.

Kohli made Ramadorai the Resident Manager there in 1979 to drive the business. This started the onsite/offshore model where TCS engineers worked during the day and their US counterparts resumed the work in their morning.

The model stayed and the US continues to be the largest revenue generator for IT firms, accounting for about 50-60 percent of the revenues for the top ones.

Nishar pointed out that maintaining relationships with clients and building trust was important for Kohli and he always kept his word to clients. This was imbibed by the industry as well.

Many of the initiatives that Kohli introduced became the bedrock for the IT industry, which was probably what earned him the name the “father of the IT industry”. Kohli was also awarded a Padma Bhushan in 2002 for his contribution to India's IT industry.

The success of the $200 billion industry, Gupta from NASSCOM, and Nishar pointed out, is thanks to the confidence he helped instill not only for TCS but also the entire industry and that spawned leaders.

Beyond TCS

After his successful stint at TCS, Kohli stepped down from the role of CEO in 1996, and Ramadorai was chosen as his successor.

Even after his retirement in 1999 from the company at the age of 75, Kohli continued to play an active role in the industry. With his passion for technology, Kohli always engaged with government committees and was a part of Nasscom. “He just kept handing out the message that we need to think beyond the success of the Indian IT industry,” said Gupta.

Gupta remembers that at one meeting, when everyone was discussing what was next for global markets, he asked them to take a step back and focus on technology in India. “Focus on local language computing, a world-class hardware sector, R&D in partnership with academics if you want Indian industry to be powerful globally,” she recalls him saying.

In 2016, former Tata group insider Cyrus Mistry alleged that Ratan Tata tried to sell TCS to IBM while Kohli was unwell to due to a medical condition.

In a clarification to Mistry’s allegations, Kohli said in a statement, “Mr Cyrus Mistry’s comments regarding the sale of TCS to IBM at some “unspecified point in time” are not correct. I was actively involved in the decision to bring IBM to India. A JV for hardware manufacturing and support in India, Tata IBM, was set up in 1991-92. This JV was undertaken to promote a computer hardware industry in India which was non-existent at that time.”

He further clarified that his “bypass surgery” happened in 1984 in the US.

Zest for life

Even well into his 90s, Kohli was as fit as they come and a lifelong learner. “He never believed in retiring. At this age he still went to the office for four hours a day,” said Nishar. But, more importantly, he loved to be with people and engage with them.

In 2019, Kohli and his wife were part of the Nasscom retreat in Varanasi. He was 95 then. “He would not accept any support and participated in all the events,” he said. Gupta recalled that he would stay engaged in business discussions and also in all the fun activities.

During a visit to Pakistan years ago by a Nasscom team as part of a larger business delegation, Gupta was struck by how sprightly Kohli was during a visit to Taxila. “At that age if you can still have that zest for life, move without support or a wheelchair... I think that is something I would love for myself,” said Gupta.

His daily walk along Mumbai’s Marine Drive, a habit of decades, says Nishar, no doubt helped him stay fit.

Mourned by IT industry

Kohli’s demise was mourned by all in the IT industry, but particularly by those in the Tata group.

Tata Sons chairman Chandrasekaran in a emailed statement, said, “…He was a true legend, who laid the very foundations for India’s spectacular IT revolution and set the stage for the dynamic modern economy we enjoy today. I have had the honor and privilege of working with and learning from Mr. Kohli from the day he hired me as a trainee in TCS."

Rajesh Gopinathan, CEO, TCS, said in an emailed statement, “….We continue to draw inspiration from Mr Kohli’s passion for technology, intellectual rigor, community spirit and his relentless drive until the very end.”

 Kohli will be missed by all who knew him in the IT industry and beyond, and his passing is bound to leave a void that is hard to fill.

Swathi Moorthy
first published: Nov 27, 2020 08:53 pm