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FC Kohli @90: An Indian engineering giant

Faqir Chand Kohli,  arguably the Father of the Indian Software industry, is 90,  today*, March 19 2014. We bring you ( with the author's permission) this tribute by Shivanand Kanavi, veteran Indian technology journalist and former Vice President at TCS, the company  Kohli  guided in its formative years to become a  respected global brand and a leader of the Indian IT sector.

He has been variously described as: the Bheeshma Pitamaha of Indian software Industry’, a la the epic Mahabharat; a master strategist and visionary whose systematic building of TCS from 1974-1996 not only created a pioneering IT giant but also laid the ground work for the rise of a $100 billion Indian IT industry; a classical mentor, whose protégés have gone on to build many other successful companies; a ‘Henry Ford of IT services’, who moved software development from artisan like activity to an industrial assembly line of a software factory and so on and so forth.
I think all of them are perhaps true but inadequate to describe  F.C. Kohli’s work or his personality. I have interacted with him for nearly two decades first as a business journalist and then as a TCS executive and he continues to surprise me with newer and newer facets of his personality.
He is a man of very few but carefully chosen words. A lot of thought and home work goes behind almost every word he speaks on a subject. An impatient new comer who tries to interrupt him will be soundly put down. He can’t stand fools and those who speak off the cuff without doing their homework and would not hesitate to tell them so. As S Ramadorai, who was picked by him as his successor to lead TCS from 1996-2009 points out in his book The TCS Story and beyond, Kohli is hard on the outside and soft and considerate inside and would listen to alternate or even dissenting views if they are grounded in facts and if they are defended with conviction. Ramadorai says he developed a method to put forward his views to FCK (as he is fondly called by many TCSers) through carefully written memos followed by a discussion, which worked remarkably well. However many others less prepared in TCS used to find a call from Kohli’s implacable secretary rather daunting and some even dreaded it.
Kohli’s contribution to Indian software industry and TCS is rather well documented. So let me bring out some lesser known but significant contributions from him, which he seems to make with consistency and regularity.
Most people in India seem to have been carried away by the spectacular success in IT services ($ 70 billion exports in 2012-13 according to RBI). A decade ago, some politicians even started calling India, quite prematurely, an ‘IT Superpower’, in their own inimitable style. However the man who started it all is far removed from such pompous statements. He has been painstakingly advocating that India cannot be a significant player on the global technology map without a developed hardware industry. India missed the microelectronics revolution mainly due to policies of the government at that time. Later the global chip industry evolved into a design and testing segment and a chip fabrication segment and Kohli advocated developing appropriate courses in IITs and other engineering colleges to develop the human resources for high end chip design and testing which today constitutes about 80% of value. As a result India has become home to a thriving chip design and testing industry. However Kohli has been emphasising that India needs to produce about 6000 MTechs (4-5 times the current output) every year in VLSI (Very Large Scale Integrated Circuits) design to reach the sophistication of Israel, which is a leading player in the field.
Improving engineering education
A passion for Kohli has been improving the standards of engineering education. Nearly two decades ago he started advocating that a handful of IITs are insufficient and at least 50 existing colleges in India have the potential to reach the IIT standards. As a result of his persistence he was tasked by the Government of Maharashtra to identify such colleges and put in motion a plan to upgrade the ones in Maharashtra. Kohli took up the challenge in not only coming up with a gap analysis report but also engaged himself as an active chairman of the board to raise the standard of College of Engineering at Pune, a 150 year old institution and alma mater of such illustrious names like M Visvesaraya, C K N Patel, Thomas Kailath, Hatim Tyabji et al. It had gone downhill since then. He gave them a systematic road map, mentored them step by step to achieve parity with IITs in undergraduate and post graduate engineering education. The results are there for all to be seen and COEP is being cited as a success story of a turn around by many experts.
Kohli’s association with education in fact goes back several decades. He was introduced to Dr P K Kelkar, who was then the principal of VJTI, Mumbai, in the 50’s. Soon he was designing a course on Control Systems to be introduced for the first time in India at VJTI. He used to give some lectures there as well, in his time-off from Tata Electric. Association with Kelkar developed further when Kelkar was made in charge of establishing IITs in Mumbai and then in Kanpur. Kohli actively worked with Kelkar in building IITs and during his visits abroad for TCS work, did some talent spotting and faculty recruitment as well. This led to IIT Kanpur developing the first MTech program in Computer Science in India. He not only recruited many of the IITans into TCS but also invited many IIT Professors to do training and consulting assignments in TCS. This culture of strong academic association continues in TCS to this day.
Kohli is not content with the current proliferation of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) in India, though it has been spectacular in the last decade. He has been advocating focused efforts to develop Indic Computing so that over the 90% of India’s population which does not know English and carries out its business in Indian languages would then cross the digital divide. “And then you will see a genuine ICT revolution”, he often says.
Kohli in unafraid to be contrarian. For example when much dust was raised recently over organized retail of both Indian and foreign pedigree, as possibly threatening the livelihood of small businesses and especially retailers; he advocated the development of appropriate IT tools to help small businessmen and traders. Combining IT with their ingenuity and inherent entrepreneurship he believes would enable Indian small businesses match anyone and thrive.
This is typical of Kohli, when faced with a problem he never regresses into defensive strategies nor engages in empty bravado but advocates appropriate technological and societal solutions.
For example when he saw the problem of adult illiteracy in India which was reported to be to the tune of 34% in 2001 census, he started working along with his colleagues P N Murthy and Kesav Nori on designing a solution. He based it on innovative teaching and deep understanding of the processes of cognition and learning. It led to a Computer Based Functional Literacy package, which can teach any one to read in any of the Indian languages within 35-40 hours at an average total cost of Rs 100 per person. It can use old discarded computers of even Intel 486 vintage and a package with animated graphics and a voiceover to explain how individual alphabets combine to form various words and their associated meaning. The setting for the lessons is visually stimulating and crafted in a manner that learners can easily relate to. It is said that this approach can help India achieve a literacy rate of 90% in about five years, which might otherwise take over 30 years.
Kohli is a strong institution builder and the Computer Society of India, NASSCOM, Manufacturers Association of Information Technology (MAIT), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Asian-Oceanian Computing Industry Organization (ASOCIO) owe a lot for their growth and evolution to his untiring efforts and leadership. Recently IEEE the largest professional organization in the world, with nearly a half a million engineers as members, honoured him with the prestigious Founders’ Medal, in USA.
Most know him as a leader of IT industry but very few know about his contributions to the Power Industry. He is a fellow of IEEE, not for his contributions to the IT but for his contributions to Power Engineering. During his nearly two decades at Tata Electric Companies (now Tata Power) and in the capacity of Chief Load Dispatcher, Kohli was one the chief architects of a system which has delivered stable, high quality, uninterrupted electricity to the city of Mumbai rivaling New York. In the mid-sixties, under his leadership, Tata Electric was the third utility in the world, the first in Asia, to employ a digital computer to plan load dispatch. His paper on the “Economics of long-distance extra-high-voltage transmission lines” written in 1963 won great acclaim and in fact created the basis and plan for Power Grid Corporation of India.
Power sector challenges
His pain is palpable when he discusses the current situation of power sector in India. The 35-50% transmission and distribution “losses” reported by various utilities enrage him. He says that with appropriate systems one can reduce it to below 10%. His track record in Tata Electric speaks for itself, where the losses used to be a mere 7-8%. “It is common sense that if you apply appropriate technology and a certain amount of investments and achieve these levels of efficiency then you have automatically doubled the power available to consumers without further investments in power generation”, he exclaims. However he is never a man to engage in empty pontification. Even now one would find him engage young power engineers from IIT Bombay in vibrant discussions on efficient power system design. Ever the entrepreneur he is encouraging them to set up a power system consulting group.
Kohli was also a pioneer in bringing the culture of management consultancy to India. In fact many of TCS’ early engagements were management consultancy assignments. “I think at one time we could have built a world class management consulting company too in India”, he sometimes says wistfully.
Kohli’s achievements in Power and IT Industry and active interest in solving varied societal problems make him an Engineers’ Engineer much like Bharat Ratna M Visvesvaraya. A workaholic, who scoffs at the concept of retirement and fading into the sunset and is deeply engaged in using technology and systems approach to solving societal problems at 90 !
Kohli is a great intellectual asset to India and we wish he also enjoys a long life like the legendary Visvesaraya.


A theoretical physicist from IIT Kanpur and  Northeastern University, Boston (US),    Shivanand Kanavi was Vice President (Special Projects), TCS,  from 2004 to 2010 and   Head, Marketing and Strategic Communication of CMC Ltd, a subsidiary of TCS, from 2010 to 2013. He is currently Consulting Editor at Business India and  has written highly acclaimed books like, “Sand to Silicon: The amazing story of digital technology” and “Research by Design: Innovation and TCS”). You can find  a link to  the original article in his blog  here. It first appeared in Business India  this week,

* Wikipedia and other web sources state that FCK's birthdate is February 28. This is an error in  the published record. The correct date is March 19 and that is the day Kohli's family are observing, Shivanand Kanavi tells us.