Faqir Chand Kohli
Faqir Chand Kohli, who passed away on 26 November 2020, is known as the ‘Father of Indian IT Industry’. A recipient of the Padma Bhushan, FC Kohli was the founding chief executive of sector leader TCS. He pioneered the country’s ‘Technology Revolution’ which helped India build its USD 100 billion IT industry.
FC Kohli was born in Peshawar on March 19, 1924. His father Gobindram Kohli was a small businessman; owner of Kriparam Drapers in Peshawar Cantonment. His maternal uncle Lala Kanshi Ram Sethi was the president of the Indian National Congress in Rawalpindi and among the wealthiest families of the city. He studied at Khalsa Middle School, and later National High School in Peshawar. He had topped the matriculation exam. He did his BA and BSc from the Government College for Men in Lahore under Punjab University. Later, he went to Queen’s University in Canada and completed BSc (Hons) in Electrical Engineering in 1948. He then proceeded to the United States where he studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from where he did MS in Mechanical Engineering in 1950. Kohli returned to India in 1951 and joined the Tata Group, India’s most respected and diversified business conglomerate. He rose to become the Director of Tata Electric Companies in 1970. During this tenure, he was responsible for the use of digital computers for power system design and control. In September 1969, Kohli became the general manager of TCS. In 1991, he actively worked to bring IBM to India as part of Tata-IBM. In 1994, he became deputy chairman of the company and the rest is history.
In an interview, Mr Kohli narrated his journey to join Tatas in the following words:
“While I was in my final year, my father passed away and that was a huge blow. Driven by the emotional trauma of my father’s death and the need to be independent, I decided to join the Navy and to my good luck, I was selected. However, while waiting to be commissioned, I saw an announcement in the paper for a government scholarship to study at the Queens University, Canada, for a course in electrical engineering. To my surprise, I was awarded the scholarship to study power engineering at one of Canada’s premier institutions, in Kingston near Toronto. The Navy agreed to release me from their employment and I set out for Canada in 1946. After doing my masters at MIT, I worked with General Electric for some time and when I returned in 1951, India was divided. The Partition had affected my family in numerous ways and in the meanwhile I got a job offer from the Tatas and I decided to stay back in India.”
At Tata group, with the support of JRD Tata, Mr Kohli founded the Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), now India’s largest and most valuable IT company. TCS, a jewel in the crown of the Tata Group, is among the world’s largest IT services-providers with a market capitalisation ($145 billion) greater than that of IBM ($118 billion) and Accenture ($143 billion). Kohli was the first and the longest serving CEO of TCS (from 1969 till 1996).
Mr Kohli was a visionary who foresaw that the future belonged to this revolutionary new technology. Fortunately for him and for India, JRD Tata, who led the group as its chairman from 1938 until his death in 1993, strongly shared this belief. This belief gave birth to TCS. The TCS model of export-led growth quickly became so successful and attractive that it spawned many Indian software startups, some of which have become global icons. For example, Infosys, established in 1981 by N R Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani (both IITians and both among India’s most respected tech entrepreneurs) and five others, is one of India’s most respected and profitable IT companies. And so is WIPRO. Its founder, Azim Premji, is India’s top philanthropist, who has so far donated $16 billion of his personal wealth. India’s software exports skyrocketed from $8 billion in 2000 to USD $150 billion in 2020. Bangalore, which attracted the largest number of Indian and foreign technology companies, came to be viewed as India’s “Silicon Valley”. The IT industry boomed in other Indian cities too — Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. Tens of thousands of young IT professionals got high-paying employment, both in India and abroad. Indians rose to high positions in some of the biggest tech companies in the world, the two most famous examples being Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google.
N. Chandrasekaran, who became the chairman of the Tata Group in 2017 after Ratan Tata (nephew of JRD Tata) stepped down, says, “Kohli interviewed me when I joined TCS as a trainee. He was a leader with great clarity of thought and conviction. He saw very early on that IT services can be an industry in which India could build a core national strength.”
Many of his protégés say that working under him was ‘Trial by Fire’. “If you crossed one fire, it meant he liked you and he would push you into a bigger fire.”
Kohli was deeply concerned over India’s failure to develop its IT hardware industry, which stood in sharp contrast to the shining success of its software industry. A keen follower of technology trends in China, he worried over the widening gap between India and China in IT hardware. For example, India’s annual electronics import bill is about $60 billion. Of this, $20 billion is for semiconductor chips, which are the backbone of the digital economy. Even though China indigenously produced only 16% of its semiconductor needs in 2019, it has set the goal of producing 70% of domestic semiconductor needs within China by 2025. Furthermore, China has pledged investment of $1.4 trillion to the development of critical technologies through 2025. Therefore, Kohli was insistent on India becoming self-reliant, to a large extent, in IT hardware manufacturing.
Kohli’s other regret was that there was practically no cooperation between India and Pakistan even in the field of IT, so crucial for any nation’s all-round development. He was proud of his Peshawar roots. He loved Lahore. Before Partition, he was witness to peaceful coexistence among Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in both cities. One of his family members said: “He had never felt discriminated or insecure in Peshawar or Lahore. Partition affected him more than most know. As a matter of fact, the events made him who he was. His family went from affluence to abject poverty. When he returned from the US in 1951, he found his family (which had migrated to Lucknow) sleeping on the mud floor of a hutment.”
Because of his own life experience, he deeply desired normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan. He dreamt of Pakistani students coming to India to study in leading technology institutes — also Indian students going to Punjab University and LUMS in Lahore, and to all the other reputable institutions in Pakistan. Speaking at the first Pakistan-India ICT Summit in Islamabad on December 16, 2004, when Nasscom and the Pakistan Software Houses Association signed a memorandum of understanding to increase trade and cooperation, he hoped that business and academic leaders would cooperate to bridge the digital divide across the border.