Faqir Chand Kohli.
Faqir Chand Kohli.

India’s IT services sector should not be just an outsourcing industry, says Faqir Chand Kohli

IT companies should be addressing software requirements of the entire country and not just the software consultants in the US, says former TCS CEO Faqir Chand Kohli

Bengaluru: Faqir Chand Kohli joined Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) in September 1969 as general manager, from Tata Electric Company. He became ‘director in charge’ or chief executive officer in October 1974. From 1974 until June 1996, he scripted and laid the foundation of TCS. Now, 94, Kohli still turns up at work at 11 in the morning at TCS’s Air India building office in Mumbai. Edited excerpts of Mint’s interview with Kohli earlier this year:

How did you join TCS?

I was born in Peshawar. Before Partition, I studied for five years in Government College, Lahore. I did B.A. Honours in Physics and Maths. Then I did a B.Sc Honours in Physics. I got the Government of India (undivided India) scholarship in 1946 to go abroad. Then for five years, I was abroad, training in electrical engineering. I spent a year working with General Electric. Later, I went for my Masters to MIT. After MIT, I joined Tata Power. From 1951 to 1969, for 18 years I was with Tata Electric Company.

Before Partition, we had a very prosperous business in Peshawar. Overnight, we became paupers and we moved and settled in Lucknow. When I came back, I saw my family sleeping on the floor. So I said that I’m not going back to MIT to pursue my doctorate and I joined Tata Electric Company.

What were the early years like at TCS?

TCS was started by P.M. Agarwala. He asked me in 1968 when I had started using computers for Tata Electric Company, to come over, and together, we started building the company.

In the first two years, all the work we did was clearing the backlog of nationalized banks. There were only nationalized banks at that time. After that, there was no work because Mrs Gandhi’s government did not believe in computers. Subsequent governments too, did not understand computers. Rajiv Gandhi was the first person who understood a little bit of computers. Actually, the first person who understood more about computers was P.V. Narasimha Rao in the 1990s. So, until early 1990s, there was not much work, or very little work. We got some work from the Tatas. That is all.

I remember, in 1972, I went to Mr. Tata (JRD Tata) and told him that I have no work. I had finished all work that was available with banks. Mr. Tata was worried. But then I got elected as director on board of IEEE, New York. I built up my own connections. I worked with Burroughs, which was the No. 2 company after IBM. They gave us the first job. And after that, exports took off.

Is this why TCS started looking at exports?

Yes. I had to go and look at exports if I had to survive as TCS. Because of restrictions (Government’s restriction on export policy), everybody (Infosys, Wipro and other IT services companies) followed TCS. The result was that there was hardly any work in the country.

So India lost out on an opportunity to be serviced by Indian IT firms?

I said India has certainly missed using TCS and others. But the exports were so impressive that neither the government nor anyone could think of anything else.

What is your current involvement with TCS?

I have no involvement with TCS except that they have given me a secretary, this room (at Air India building). I used to have a room in Bombay House (Tata Corporate Office). But now, I have been doing work in the education area. I left TCS in end-1999 when I completed 75 years. Since then, I’ve been working in the education field. I started the adult literacy programme. But the sad part is after the government took over—what progress they have made, they have not kept us informed.

One criticism of TCS has been that it overlooked consulting work and has done more of back-end work, hiring engineers to write code, or maintain infrastructure...

That is not correct. Consultancy comes under computers.

TCS completes 50 years this year. Are you satisfied with the progress made by the company?

It has become the No. 1 company. If it had not done enough, how did it become No. 1? So, undoubtedly, it is a success story.

Any suggestions for the current leaders of Indian IT firms?

I can only say that the industry should not be only an outsourcing industry. It should be addressing software requirements of the entire country and not just the software consultants in the US.