Memories of Faqir Chand Kohli, father of India’s IT industry

RITU JHA

Faqir Chand Kohli, a visionary who is acknowledged as the father of the Indian software industry, passed away at age 96 on Thursday, November 26.

Kohli, whom India had feted with its third-highest civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, was the first CEO of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which pioneered India’s information technology revolution and helped the country build its $100 billion IT industry.

On Kohli’s death, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Mr. F.C. Kohli will be remembered for his leadership contribution in the world of information technology. He was at the forefront of institutionalizing the culture of innovation and excellence in the technology world. Sad to his death. My condolences to his family and fans.”

Kohli joined Tata Electric Companies in 1951 and helped to set up the load dispatching system to manage the system operations. He became director of Tata Electric Companies in 1970.

Kohli was born in Peshawar, where he did his schooling, and went to college in Lahore. He later went to Queen’s University, Canada, did his BSc (Hons) in Electrical Engineering in 1948 and did his MS in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1950.

Uday Kapoor, who has 45 years of experience working for tech giants such as Oracle Corporation and Sun Microsystems, told indica News that Kohli remained active and inquisitive even at age 96.

Kapoor, who now volunteers for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and his wife met with Kohli in January this year.

Kapoor said he was impressed to see Kohli active at the age of 96 and a book on Artificial Intelligence kept on his desk.

That surprised me,” said Kapoor, who met Kohli on the 11th floor of the Air India building in Mumbai.

It was amazing to learn he never missed a single day and would show up in his office every day,” said Kapoor.

Kapoor had gone to meet Kohli for the oral history series — that interviews tech titans — of the Computer History Museum’s Semiconductor Special Interest Group.

Kapoor met Kohli to get the oral history of Kohli’s life.

Mr Kohli took time to get at ease to give an interview even though it was scheduled. But it worked out and he talked for about 25 minutes,” Kapoor said. “I was happy with whatever time I got.”

Kohli, along with legendary Indian entrepreneur JRD Tata, enabled the funding of Elxsi. Co-founded by Dr A Thampy Thomas, it was the first computer startup founded by an Indian national in Silicon Valley. It later became TATA Elxsi.

Mr Kohli was passionate about education and would say to the Indian government that Indians are very smart and they need to be properly educated,” said Kapoor.

When Kapoor asked Kohli about advice for the future generation, Kohli said: “My advice is that future lies in technology. And technology is changing very rapidly. Computers is one of the tools it uses. The other part is the thinking of this. And but this country has a lot more to do. The first thing is I had to see all those people who do not know English still can work with computers. See? And also I have to provide education in the colleges for those who will go abroad for further education.”

Vish Mishra, venture director at Clearstone Venture Partners, told indica News that Kohli’s passing was “a very sad day for India.”

I got to first meet him in 1976 when I was with Burroughs Corporation. He came to form Tata Burroughs partnership to start manufacturing printers in India,” said Mishra, who is also a former TiE Silicon Valley president.

Mishra said Kohli was a visionary.

He had an amazing personality, a great visionary who strived and thrived and could make things happen when others had doubts. Highly ethical and charming personality who could work with global leaders and put them at ease,” Mishra said.

Mishra said that in 1968, Kohli he started computers when nobody wanted a computer and even Indira Gandhi, the then Indian prime minister, was not interested to import electronics or computers.

So Mr Kohli decided to start sending engineers to the US. He started sending talent to America,” Mishra said.

Mr Kohli got training from Tata Group chairman JRD Tata, and was fearless. He would take bold moves; I have seen that,” said Mishra.

He said it was Kohli who set up the joint venture with Burroughs in the US, called Tata Burroughs, and Tata started to manufacture printers in India. It was designed by Burroughs and manufactured in India, Mishra said.

Mishra said Kohli spoke at TiEcon in Pune a couple of years ago and was invited to speak at TiEcon in Silicon Valley but the timing did not work out.

Kanwal Rekhi, managing director, Inventus Capital, told indica News that he met Kohli for the first time in 1990 at a trade show in Chicago when he was manning a small booth for TCS.

I had not heard of either him or TCS till then. He came to see me at Novell the following year. He was a giant of a personality and helped build the Indian IT industry to its current size,” Rekhi said and added that when he first met Kohli, the Indian IT industry was not well developed and Indians in India were not well known for software development. So, he was not sure if he was not exaggerating when he told me that they were looking for IT Consulting work in the US.

“I was impressed by his persistence but I dismissed them out of hand. There wasn’t much to it than that. A year later I signed up with Harish Mehta of Onward Technology in Mumbai as Novell’s partner in India. FC came to see me if I would also consider them or consider them instead of Onward. Novell stayed with Onward and did very well in India, ” Rekhi said sharing his thoughts about Kohli.

Sam Pitroda, Indian telecom engineer, inventor and entrepreneur and the man credited with eventually bringing technology to the policy table, said Kohli was a very close friend.

A real gentleman, visionary, humble, helpful and exceptional. He was also a strong leader and a people builder. He was the original architect of TCS,” Pitroda said.

Thomas Kailath, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, at Stanford University, said while TCS was Kohli’s major contribution, there were many other things he did,

He was indeed a great leader and contributor to India and to IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]. We had many interactions here and in India,” Kailath said. “I had the pleasure and honor of getting the IEEE Founders Medal for him. He was thrilled and brought his whole family to the award event.”

Kailath’s wife, Dr Anuradha Luther Maitra, wrote about her meeting with Faqir around two years ago in Mumbai.

Faqir uncle was my father’s classmate (from Government College, Lahore) and close friend for 80 years! Also his son Madhur is married to my first cousin Meenoo- a marriage arranged by my father- a friend’s son with brother’s daughter,” she wrote.

Caption for photograph on top: Mrs and Mr Uday Kapoor flank Faqir Chand Kohli. Photograph courtesy Uday Kapoor.