Faqir Chand Kohli or F.C. Kohli, often called the Father of the Indian software industry, passed into the pages of history on Thursday.
He was 96.
Born in Peshawar in March 1924, Kohli studied at Khalsa Middle School, and later National High School. He did his BA and BSc. Honours from Government College, Lahore. The college had a mix of students – Hindus and Muslims lived together in the same hostel.
After completing his graduation at MIT, he worked with General Electric for some time and when he returned in 1951, India was divided. The Partition affected his family in numerous ways, but in the meanwhile, he got a job offer from the Tatas – a decision that made him decide to stay back in India.
Kohli initially joined Tata Electric Companies in 1951, and helped to set up the load dispatching system to manage the company’s system operations. But he truly shined after going on to become the first CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which in the 1970s was still struggling to get on its feet, primarily delivering punch card system services and archaic bank reconciliation solutions. Kohli, however, managed to turn it around, going on to help kick-start the country’s IT revolution and pitch for India as an IT superpower.
An inscrutable personality, Kohli was a passionate professional. A highly respected individual, he was quietly instrumental in building modern India.
It is perhaps cliché now to say India’s IT industry put the country on the global map. But the best clichés always have a lot of truth in them. As Suresh Krishna, a senior industrialist from the TVS group in Chennai, quipped to this correspondent a few years ago: “Thanks to IT, the world no longer asks: where is India?”.
Well, in the 1980s and 1990s, Kohli indeed played the change-agent for the reconfiguration of how the world viewed India – but also more importantly dramatically changed the job market for the ‘aspirational’ Indian.
“Multiple generations of men and women in India owe it to him,” said Ramkumar Ramamoorthy, former chairman of rival firm Cognizant India. Ramkumar worked with Kohli and interacted closely with him over the decades. For many like Ramkumar, Kohli was an institution.
Today, TCS has grown gigantic, and employs talented men and women from across different strata of Indian society. In a way, Kohli was largely instrumental in ushering in distributive justice in a workplace. A gender-agnostic job environment was the product of his leadership.
In a country like India where discriminations – on assorted counts – are common, Kohli managed to build a whole new transparent platform that opened up high quality jobs for everybody across gender, caste, community and region. This facet of his contribution had largely gone unnoticed and should be acknowledged.
For this has brought about a metamorphosis of extraordinary kind in the mindset of a common India. In a way TCS – nay the Kohli-led institution, was perhaps the pioneer in creating an equal and non-discriminatory work ecosystem in the Indian business world.
TCS changed Kohli as well: from being a management consultant, he, along the way, transformed into a technology consultant and evangelist.
Tata insiders say that successive finance ministers at the Centre always solicited his inputs prior to their annual budget presentations. Often, their consultations with him revolved around using technology to drive growth across the entire economic canvass.
His singular contribution in the policy realm – less unknown and stated – was the crusader role he played in freeing the industry of the regulatory shackles of the government. When the term ‘software’ was largely misunderstood by many, he demystified it and managed to get the government to come out with an easy to comprehend policy environment. He was, in a way, visionary, and understood the power of technology and computing to transform the way the governments function, businesses operate and people aspire.
In a sense, Kohli – along with a group of other industry leaders – played a fundamental role in creating the ‘aspirational’ Indian.
A tough taskmaster
A cursory view would involve describing Kohil as a stern, unexciting and inscrutable professional. S. Ramadorai, Kohli’s successor, as more than once referred to him as a “benevolent dictator”.
“He was difficult to deal with but more since he was very competent and would cut people short. He had little patience when presented with “poor” ideas. Hence, I learnt to communicate in writing, and engage in dialogue later. This worked for both of us. When I took charge in 1996, I dispensed with hierarchy to a great extent. There was more of a collegiate atmosphere,” Ramadorai, who led TCS until 2006, told one newspaper.
Underneath Kohli’s stern exterior though, lay a passionate and visionary mind. People who knew him were struck by the breadth of his knowledge. From genetics to securities trading, Kohli could converse with ease. That perhaps gave the edge for TCS which now has a fairly strong presence in assorted verticals. A quiet dreamer, he was a pioneer in transforming India. His wish was also to transform Bharat. How to use technology to transform Bharat? That thought was in his mind always.
K.T. Jagannathan is a senior financial journalist based in Chennai.