F C Kohli, the long-time CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) who passed away last week, played a pivotal role in nurturing information technology (IT) in India. With his Queen’s University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) electrical engineering pedigree, he could have emigrated to a developed country. However, he chose to join the Tata Electric Company in the early 1950s.
Kohli was, first and foremost, an engineer. He kept abreast of the latest in electrical and electronics engineering throughout his life, and sought out like-minded engineers to ensure that the discipline is put to the best use for the country. One such electrical engineer from Mumbai in the early 1950s was P K Kelkar, who went on to become the first director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. Kelkar and Kohli played an important role in ensuring that IIT-Kanpur obtained an IBM 1620 computer with aid from the USA in 1963 — the machine became the nucleus for India’s first computer centre in an educational institution. As a part of the IIT-Kanpur’s interview board, Kohli also recruited young faculty to teach computer programming, who went on to become doyens of computer science education in India.
Kohli was a hands-on engineer and among the earliest participants to learn the fundamentals of computers and Fortran programming in a computer training course offered by IIT-Kanpur. He started the process of computerisation in Tata Electric Company with the material management function, and ensured that company personnel were trained on computers. When Tata Electric Company installed a Westinghouse computer in the late 1960s, it was among the few in the world at the time to use a computer for efficiently controlling the power grid.
In 1968, the executive leaders in Tata Sons, including JRD Tata, wanted Kohli to join their new division, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which had a “large” IT consulting practice consisting of a few professionals. Not surprisingly, one of his first decisions at TCS was to recruit almost the entire class of IIT-Kanpur’s MTech electrical engineering department, with specialisation in computer science.
How have the bets Kohli placed in the 1960s turned out today? According to Nasscom, India’s IT and IT-enabled services sector has annual revenues of about $191 billion and employs over four million professionals. One can trace this growth back to a few hundred professionals in TCS and other Indian IT companies in the late 1960s. From a handful of students graduating with a specialisation in computer science in the late 1960s, India grants close to 2,00,000 computer science and related degrees today. The Indian IT and IT-enabled sector has not only earned valuable foreign exchange for the country, but also provided quality jobs to college educated youth, including first-generation graduates.
While serving on the global board of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) — one of the world’s foremost professional bodies — he zeroed in on Burroughs, a leading US computer manufacturer, for a joint venture with Tatas to sell and service Burroughs computers in India. Soon, TCS began writing software for Burroughs — one of its first offshore-based software services project. A few years later, Kohli and other senior Indian technocrats declined a plan to merge TCS with the Tata Burroughs joint venture, as they believed that TCS, an all-Indian entity, had to be nurtured independently. TCS now has an annual revenue of about $22 billion and employs over 4,53,000 professionals.
While Kohli believed in keeping TCS independent, he was also welcoming of the best global companies when he believed that their technology would be useful for India. A change in policy in the late 1970s led to IBM, the largest US computer company that operated in India through a fully owned subsidiary, to shut shop in India. Kohli played a role in IBM re-entering the country in the early 1990s as a Tata joint venture, Tata Information Systems. Today, IBM operates independently with a large presence in India, as do over a thousand IT and R&D subsidiaries of multinational corporations.
It is thanks to IT leaders like Kohli that India earned its place as a global IT leader. He will continue to inspire generations of professionals to leverage technology for the betterment of India and the world.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 2, 2020 under the title ‘Engineer And Builder’. The writer is co-founder and CEO of itihaasa Research and Digital. Views are personal