Remembering Faqir Chand Kohli, father of Indian IT

Under FC Kohli, often described as the Henry Ford of IT services, TCS moved software development from an artisan-like activity to the industrial assembly line of a software factory

Kohli’s exposure to computing and commendable performance in Tata Electric (the fourth utility company in the world to use computing) was responsible for his almost forced deputation into TCS as GM by PM Agarwala, then director-in-charge of TCS.
Kohli’s exposure to computing and commendable performance in Tata Electric (the fourth utility company in the world to use computing) was responsible for his almost forced deputation into TCS as GM by PM Agarwala, then director-in-charge of TCS.

By Shashank Shah

TCS was not sure which way to go when I took over,’ recalled Faqir Chand Kohli, former deputy chairman of TCS, about 1969, when he was brought into Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) on a year-long deputation. With a workforce of 10 consultants and 200 operators, their main responsibility was to manage the punch card operations of TISCO (now Tata Steel). Kohli had joined the Tata Electric Companies (TEC, now Tata Power) in 1951. His rise at TEC was meteoric. In two decades, he rose from chief load dispatcher to deputy general manager.

In 1968, TCS and three other units were incorporated as operating divisions of Tata Sons with 20 senior executives from various Tata businesses. Kohli’s exposure to computing and commendable performance in Tata Electric (the fourth utility company in the world to use computing) was responsible for his almost forced deputation into TCS as GM by PM Agarwala, then director-in-charge of TCS. Resisting his transfer to TCS, Kohli is believed to have told JRD Tata, ‘I don’t know anything about computers.’ To which JRD shot back, ‘Well, no one in India knows anything either.’ Kohli’s heart was in TEC; he aspired to lead the company someday. However, having a task cut out for him at TCS, he got into the act, almost instantaneously. With no trail to follow and no benchmark to emulate, TCS had to build the market from scratch. Its first breakthrough came through a contract from the Central Bank of India to automate its inter-branch reconciliation process. A noteworthy execution brought orders from 14 other banks. Projects from Unit Trust of India, Bombay Municipal Corporation and Delhi Transport Authority followed. By 1972, he had set the vision for TCS and requested Tata Sons management to permit him to return to his first love—TEC and electrical engineering. But they wanted him to stay with TCS. He obliged, and the rest is history. The Indian electrical industry’s loss was India’s embryonic IT industry’s gain. The journey was far from smooth.

After nationalisation by the Indira Gandhi Government in 1969, business from banks declined as the government did not want computers. It was around this time when Kohli got elected on the esteemed IEEE Board of Directors, headquartered in USA. Before leaving, he presented his concerns before JRD Tata concerning lack of business opportunities for TCS in India and averred that it might have to be closed soon. However, he used his frequent visits to IEEE, almost every quarter for two consecutive years (and at no cost to the Tatas, he emphasised), to explore business prospects in USA. He would always visit Detroit, the headquarters of Burroughs Corporation (BC). At that time, Burroughs wanted healthcare software that would be packaged with their computers. Kohli convinced them that BC and TCS could work together. BC was convinced, and the two signed India’s first IT outsourcing contract for $24,000. Surprisingly, TCS didn’t have a single Burroughs machine then. It was a giant leap of faith to deliver the software package without compatible hardware. But TCS went ahead and developed the whole system on an available ICL computer (acquired from Life Insurance Corporation when its communist unions had prevented its use perceiving a threat to jobs). TCS built an ingenious filter to transfer the system from ICL to a Burroughs computer. BC was impressed. TCS had successfully completed its first software export project. In 1974, Kohli was made the director-in-charge for TCS.

India had missed the industrial revolution (due to British Rule) and the microelectronics revolution (due to the socialist mindset of the post-independence governments). Kohli predicted during a function at the Computer Society of India in 1975 that India had another revolution waiting for it—the IT revolution. He ensured that the opportunity was not missed. Later, he even advocated developing appropriate courses to develop human resources for high-end chip design and testing. As a result, India became home to a thriving chip design and testing industry.

Unlike most companies which first establish themselves locally, and then go global, TCS primarily focused on the international market from the beginning. This was due to lack of adequate demand in the domestic market, poor computer infrastructure and naive technological knowhow. Kohli blamed the lack of belief of Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Charan Singh governments in computer technology for this. The scenario improved only post-liberalisation during the Narasimha Rao government. From a macro perspective, the knowledge gained by Indian developers through overseas IT projects during the 1970s and 1980s, brought tremendous learnings to India; widely benefitting the IT industry.

In the 1970s, Kohli could foresee the decline of Burroughs business and felt the need to acquaint his TCS team to IBM machines. Eventually, the team gained proficiency in software building on both frameworks and delivered large migration projects for international clients. By late 1980s, the company was the largest consultancy outfit in India, bigger than the next ten software companies put together. It was working on 500+ projects in 40 countries. Kohli’s spadework in travelling to the west and building connections created a brand name not only for TCS but for India. This recognition eventually opened doors for numerous Indians to work abroad and set up companies in Silicon Valley.

During a conversation at his office in May 2017, the nonagenarian Kohli, often called ‘Bhishma Pitamah’ of India’s software industry, shared insights into his six-decades long association with the Tata Group. Hailing from Peshawar, Kohli completed his graduation in Physics from Punjab University in Lahore, and his master’s from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA. Despite an offer to pursue PhD at MIT, he returned to India in 1950 to assist his family who had relocated to Lucknow. ‘My family was in distress and I didn’t want to leave them alone,’ he admitted. Despite the trauma of migration, he was committed to contribute significantly to India’s future and not just make a living for himself. Underscoring his learnings at the Tata Group, he said, ‘We are all working for the country. The profits are there, but the first step is to work and serve the people. If we do that, profits will come. Tata’s philosophy is to serve the people. Otherwise how will a Parsi concern attract people of all religions. Service of people means focus on client, build up your knowledge, and help the client to build his clients. In the process, don’t forget that I am learning as much as my client. Learning should never stop.’

Often described as the Henry Ford of IT services, Kohli-led TCS moved software development from an artisan-like activity to an industrial assembly line of a software factory. By the time Kohli stepped down from executive responsibility at TCS in 1998, over two lakh Indian programmers were driving the global IT revolution. Not just that. In the 1990s, IT and computer sciences became the No1 career choice for engineers in India. Of the million students that wrote the IIT-JEE every year, 50% joined the IT industry. In a way, Kohli and the top leadership at TCS can be credited for creating enormous employment opportunities for Indian youth, an invaluable service to the nation. Kohli gave TCS a direction, fought scepticism, and gained international assignments through personal credibility. Under his watchful guidance, TCS grew from 10 consultants in 1969 to 14,000 by the time he stepped down in the late 1990s. Two decades later, TCS is India’s largest private-sector employer and the most valuable IT company in the world.

The article is based on Shah’s book ‘The Tata Group’ published by Penguin Random House in 2018.

Author has been a visiting scholar, Harvard Business School and Copenhagen Business School

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