F.C. Kohli in 2016. Source: YouTube.
New Delhi: Faqir Chand Kohli, who passed away at 96 in Mumbai on Thursday, was truly the doyen of India’s information technology industry. He was witness to the Eureka moment of this industry in 1974, had the vision to forecast the leadership position for India in this sector and lived to see his dream be fulfilled in his lifetime.
The 1970s was a decade of churn in India’s data processing industry, which had until then been dominated by two multinational firms, the American IBM and the British ICL, since the 1950s. These two companies were the only suppliers of data-processors and mainframe computers in use in large government utilities like the railways as well as industrial houses, such as the Tatas and Birlas. Both firms followed the practice of importing used machines, refurbishing them in India and leasing them out to users at exorbitant prices.
When an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General found large-scale malpractices in invoicing and pricing, among other things, the government decided to rein them in and handed the task over to the newly established Department of Electronics.
It was against this backdrop that Kohli, who was working as deputy general manager in Tata Electric Companies, was shifted in late 1969 to Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) as general manager. TCS had been established in 1967 as Tata Computer Centre to handle the data-processing work of all companies of the Tata group. Three management graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Lalit Surajmal Kanodia, Nitin Patel and Ashok Malhotra – who had interned with the Tatas and had prepared a project report on data centres, were asked to implement their idea. Yashpal Sahni, a postgraduate of the Indian Statistical Institute, was another founding member. Kohli succeeded Kanodia in 1969.
“I was happy in Tata Electric and was reluctant to leave it, but I was asked to take charge of the new venture for a year,” Kohli had recounted in an interview to this author in November 2006. TCS was finding the going tough as group companies were reluctant to part with their data-processing functions. Kohli soon realised that TCS will have to look for business outside the group. The first external customer Kohli got in 1971 was Bombay Telephones, which wanted to digitise its telephone directory as part of a project funded by the World Bank.
Since the market in India was dominated by IBM and ICL, which supplied both the mainframes and proprietary software, Kohli had to work around this system to enter the market. He decided to work with Burroughs – IBM’s closest rival. Using his MIT alumni and contacts, via the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, in academic and commercial circles, Kohli got in touch with Burroughs. He visited the US at least nine times between 1972 and1974. The breakthrough came in the form of a contract from Burroughs – to writing OS software for a new series of mainframes it was working on.
Kohli signed the deal but TCS engineers back home didn’t have a Burroughs mainframe to develop the software. They only had an ICS 1903 series machine. The young engineers found a way out: an advanced software filter that could make ICL OS software work on Burroughs’ platform. The code developed in Bombay was shipped to the US (no data communication links back then) where it was tested on Burroughs machines and it worked. This was the Eureka moment for both Burroughs and for Kohli.
This is how Kohli had described the experience:
“Burroughs had come out with a new series of machine which could be programmed to make it as efficient for FORTRAN as in COBOL1. All operating system of Burroughs computers was written in a higher language, Algol, and not in assembly language. We did not have a Burroughs machine in India – importing one would have taken two years. So we developed it on an ICL machine which we had. We designed a very advanced software filter for filtering from ICL to Burroughs machine.
It was tested in the US and it worked. This convinced Burroughs that we can do something out of the box. Burroughs bought that piece of software to migrate many ICL machines to Burroughs in the UK – and we were in business.”
It demonstrated to an American customer that software developed in India by local engineers could work on machines in America. For Kohli and TCS, it meant an entry into the US market. Contracts started flowing to TCS – from the Detroit Police, the City of Detroit, the State University of New York, from banks and so on.
TCS engineers wrote software for customers of Burroughs mainframes not just in India but in other countries as well. Tata and Burroughs also got into manufacturing peripherals in India and established a separate software unit called Tata Burroughs Limited, which along with TCS remained India’s top software exporter for a long time.
Kohli visualised a great opportunity for the Indian software industry in 1975 even though the policy environment then was highly unfriendly to industry. Addressing the annual meeting of the Computer Society of India at Ahmedabad in 1975 he said:
“There was an industrial revolution. We missed it due to reasons beyond our control. Today, there is a new revolution – a revolution in information technology which requires neither mechanical bias nor mechanical temperament. Primarily, it requires the capability to think clearly. This we have in abundance. We have the opportunity to participate in this revolution on an equal basis – we have the opportunity, even, to assume leadership in this revolution. If we miss this opportunity, those who follow us will not forgive us for tardiness and negligence.”
Thankfully, Kohli lived long enough to see his vision get translated into reality.
Dinesh C. Sharma is a columnist and author based in New Delhi. His book The Outsourcer: The Story of India’s IT Revolution was published by MIT Press in 2015.