The making of ‘Father of Indian IT’

Fakir Chand Kohli was overwrought with uncertainties about the future. It was the early seventies and his employers, the Tatas, had asked him to take charge of their fledgling IT company, Tata Consultancy Services or TCS. Kohli had been associated with Tata Electric for over two decades and by his own admission was “a power engineer first”. Tatas were quite keen on Kohli taking charge at TCS due to his technical knack; after all he was instrumental in bringing mainframes in India around 1964 and completely computerising Tata Electric, one of the very few companies globally. Yet, he was not fully convinced.

Finally, his wife Swaran came to his aid and advised him to take up the challenge. Kohli took up the job on one condition that he could return to Tata Electric whenever he wanted to. And the rest as they say is history.

Often referred as the ‘father of Indian IT’ or the ‘Bheeshpithamha’ (grand sire), Kohli modestly states that these labels do not affect him, though he adds, “I have received lot of respect from people. What more could I have asked for?”

Early days

Born in Peshawar, British India; Kohli completed his graduation from Punjab University. His father ran a renowned department store in Peshawar. “It was one of the biggest in the country named as Kriparam Brothers”. Kohli was part of a large household and was the youngest kid, with 3 brothers and a couple of sisters.

Kohli is a voracious reader and he attributes this habit to his mother. “Though she had studied till standard 8th, she was an avid reader till her death in 1965. She used to read newspapers everyday, and regularly read fiction too. In fact, she maintained a small library that had religious as well as other books. I have inherited that trait from her,” he says.

He also doesn’t fail to add his indebtness to his elder brother, Devraj. “Due to family and personal reasons, he had to leave his education and join our family business. He never forgot that and desired his younger brother to have every opportunity that he could not. What I am today, I owe it all to him,” he says.

Kohli completed his B.A. in English (honors) and B.Sc in Applied Mathematics and Physics. But aren’t literature and applied mathematics at cross with each other? Kohli thunders, “Of course not. Isn’t a beautiful novel constructed on brilliant logic? Take the instance of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code…it talks about symbols and aren’t symbols the crux of mathematics?,” he questions.

After his graduation, Kohli applied for a scholarship and went abroad for further studies in 1945, first to Queen’s University, Canada and then his masters in Electrical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston. He returned to India in 1951 for good.

By that time, his family had shifted to Lucknow and he was distraught to see them reduced to such desperate level. “We had to start life all over again. It was a big shock,” he reminisces. “It was a terrible thing (partition) to happen. I just could not fathom how it all happened. We were all so good to each other, so happy,” he adds. Continue reading

The Interview

Back in 2004, I was in a bad state. After chucking the job at Financial Express, I was desperately searching for an opening. While, I was employed with an e-learning company, but it didn’t excite me much, since I wished to be in journalism. Being the first in my family to venture into the fourth estate, I was finding it hard to get a break in the mainstream media, since there was no god father to back me up and also since all of my previous stints had ended on an acrimonious note, I did not have good references either. What goes around, comes around, and I was just about realising that.

Sometime during that period, I chanced across an opening at It was (and still is) one of the premier portals in India. Also, the fact that I was much addicted to it, the prospect of getting a job there excited me all the more.  There used to be an HR head, Inderjit, who spoke to me over the phone and subsequently had me interviewed by the editors there. The interview with the editors, I think, went off fabulously well. The gentlemen were pretty cool, in fact, one of them even sported a pony-tail (considering that my editor at a previous stint coerced me to snip my off, it was a big thing). We discussed many things under the sun, right from philosophy to sports and I think I had bagged the job, when they got down to the basics about the notice period and salary slips. It all ended on a high-note, so even when they stated that they will get back to me later, I was much at ease.

After a few days, I received a mail from Inderjeet, he desired a few clarifications and posed a few queries and asked me to respond to them over the mail itself. It was sort of a final interview over email. Since, I was pretty confident that I had the editors impressed, I took the test a bit lightly and answered the questions in one-go, candidly.

Post the interview, all that I got from Inderjeet’s end was static. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months, and finally, I buried the last shred of hope that I carried with me. I WILL NOT BE GETTING A JOB AT REDIFF. The message was loud and clear. On introspection, I think I goofed up in the final stage. Or probably the vacancy got filled up or just disappeared.

Some days back, I chanced across the mail exchange, in which the interview was conducted. And somehow, even though I blamed my naivety for spoiling the chance, I did not feel the same about it now. The answers were honest and any one would have gauged that. I do not think that they were a reason now. Probably Inderjeet found someone better at a cheaper salary. Continue reading

Chilean Miracles: From the slopes of Andes to the mine in San Jose

Just as Florencio Avalos walked out of the Fenix, a rescue cage that brought him up some 700 metres below the earth from the San José copper-gold mine in Chile, his eagerly waiting son hugged him hard. Not only Avalos and his family, but also the Chilean population and Courtesy: AP Photo/Government of Chile, Hugo Infantethe world at large heaved a big sigh of relief. Avalos  marked the end of a 69 day wait that started when there was a collapse in the mine in which they were working in, entrapping 33 men 2300 feet below the Earth.

Entrapped in a 50 square meter shelter, the miners lived through the ordeal and worked as a cohesive group. In fact for the first 17 days, they had no contact with the outside world, and no one knew whether there were any survivors at all. Yet, under the aegis of senior and experienced miner, the rest did not lose hope and started to ration the limited food they had on hand.

On August 22, when the miners stuck a note written in a red marker to a probe, the world came to know about the survivors. And subsequently, the heaven and earth were moved, quite literally, to rescue these miners. Mining accidents are quite common in Chile, but the gods were kind on these miners and the story ended on a good note. In a strange quirk of fate, the gods were kind once more in the past, some 38 odd years ago. In fact in some strange ways, the story of the Copiapó mine rescue has an unique parallels with an event that took place 38 years back. Popularly known as the Miracle in the Andes, the accident occurred in 1972, in the the world’s longest continental mountain range, the Andes.

Back then, a win turboprop Fairchild FH-227D flying under the Uruguayan Air Force insignia, crashed in the the Andes. The plane was ferrying Old Christians Club rugby union team from Montevideo, Uruguay, to play a match in Santiago, Chile. There were 45 people on-board including players, crew and their families. After a frantic search over the arduous terrain of Andes, the search was abandoned and the passengers given up for dead. But unbeknowst to them, the plane had crash-landed and while 12 of the 45 passengers died instantly, the rest survived. But the condition of the living was worser than that of the died. Continue reading

Interview: Dave Evans (Cisco)

Sitting across the table, some 13000 kms away in San Francisco, was the man of the future, Dave Evans, chief futurist, Cisco. Through the enclosing Telepresence screen, I could almost feel the glare of his peering eyes. But then, that’s the side-effects of dealing with a futurist, who’s job profile involves looking always over the horizon. Dave is just the man for it.

The best thing about him is that he does not confine himself, solely talking about networking and hardware (which could be expected since he draws his paycheck from Cisco), but he can shed light on a variety of topics. For instance, a good 15 minutes of our time in the interaction we spent discussing how the human society will evolve, will ever have a scenario like that poignantly imagined by HG Wells in the Time Machine, a division of the human society of lazy Eloi (the haves) and the wily Morlocks (the have-nots).  Well, he charted the division from the digital divide perspective and seemed wary of how it might widen in the future.

Nonetheless, we did speak much on technology and here is what he had to say on various things.

Just one thing, don’t forget to read Dave Evans 25 top tech predictions at the end of this interaction. In fact if possible, read it first before diving into the Q&A.

In one of your prognosis, you have spoken about data explosion. How critical is the issue?

Data explosion is one of the biggest issues that will hold sway in the days to come and that is simply because we are generating information at an exponential rate. To give you an idea, the Internet in the US at 2015 will be 50 times larger than in 2006 because of the huge volumes of data uploads. Even as we talk now, the Internet is growing fantastically, savour this, everyday some 10 billion email messages are sent, close to 20 hours of video is being uploaded on YouTube every single minute. So in a way, we are drowning in this sea of data that we ourselves are creating.

This explosion has led to the realisation that data is not knowledge, and we need to be careful and not err in believing the same. The difference is essential as today companies across the world are digging deeper into the vast loads of information they have to find nuggets of consumer insights and thereby build up business. Thus, it is very critical for an enterprise to chalk out a strategy on how to deal with data explosion.

You have also spoken about instantaneous communication in the future, how will that have an impact?

In the years to come, thanks to wonders like quantum computing, etc. instantaneous communication will indeed be a reality. But even today, the world has more or less flattened when it comes to communication as the Internet has enabled communication with everyone in a matter of few seconds. The impact is huge, for instance, a few centuries back if I had to share knowledge with you, I would have to go through the arduous old trade routes and it could take anything between a few weeks to months for us to get together and exchange words. And here we are today in different part of the globes, sitting across the table and conversing in real time. This ability to share knowledge instantaneously will have a huge impact in the days to come, business models, revenue models; everything will change under its wake.

You also used the term ‘flattening’, what are the implications of the same?

Huge and we are already witnessing the impacts of the same. You see, the flattening, so as to say, has not only resulted in an agile workforce, but has also turned the world into a sort of global marketplace. So any company located anywhere in the world can sell anything to anyone located elsewhere. That’s why countries like India and China are blossoming. They are becoming tour de force vis-a-vis the US. This is a huge challenge for enterprises and even bigger opportunity for them.

Do you think the networking and communication capabilities be able to cope up with this growth? Continue reading

Encounter with the Pee-lice

It was late evening and the little shrub shrugged disenchantedly under the warm shower, much like a kid does when rudely woken up for school. After being drenched incessantly by the Westerlies, the last thing that it desired was warm water to disturb the repose. And yet, for all my concern and respect, I had little recourse but to let nature have its way — out of me. So, after dutifully ‘watering the plants’ or rather a solitary shrub on a dark sidewalk, I felt much relieved and refreshed to continue my onward journey home.

But barely, had I zipped up, a hoarse cry disturbed my nirvana. On turning around, I found out that the person hollering out was none other than a Mumbai cop, and by the way he was looking, he seemed to be a sub-inspector (had a gun holster and no Pandu cap) and yes he seemed much irate and on the verge of fuming.

Hey kay kele” he said much loudly, even though a few quick paces had brought him much closer to me than before. On seeing my bewildered look, he quickly shifted from Marathi to Hindi (to help me or chastise me). The subsequent conversation ran something like this:

Mad cop (MC): Tum idhar su su kyun kia?
Bewildered me (BM): Saab, jor se aaya tha
MC: Aur koi jagah naheen dikha
BM: Saab kidhar karta poora to road hain
MC: To kya idhar karne ka, police ka gaadi naheen dekha kya

At that point, I did remember seeing the police vehicle — the kind that was bought to fight off the Kasab-types, a heavy built Scorpio with COMBAT etched boldly — parked on the side. But then since, there seemed to be no women in there, and considering that men are often considerate on such sensitive issues, I decided to let nature have its way. I tried explaining it as deferentially as possible.

BM: Saab, dekha tha, magar bahut zor se aaya tha, aur aage sab ladies wagarah khadha tha. To out of respect idhar kia
MC: Tumko police ka respect naheen hain?

The question seemed more like an accusation, and even though the answer was fairly obvious, I continued lying through my teeth.

BM: Saab, bahut respect hain, but aap samjho na

By this time, he was in angst not only that I had peed, but also the fact that since I wasn’t conversant in Marathi, it was obvious that I was an outsider or rather a migrant. Now, now, a migrant dirtying Mumbai, no self-respecting cop can bear. So, almost sounding like Gabbar from Sholay, he pronounced. Continue reading

Of Bun Maska and History

One of my biggest regrets in life is that I am ill equipped to be a food reviewer or a connoisseur. Over the years I have been an mute outsider to discussions of whether Karims in Jama Masjid, Delhi, is the best place for kebabs or is it Bade Miyaan in Mumbai, or whether the pork chops in Goa are sumptuous or is it the momos in North East.Menu at Ideal

At most I could look on with wonder at how passionate people become when comes to discussing cuisines, I would smirk and nod my head in disbelief. It was just that I never felt like arguing or debating so valiantly over a paneer kadhai or even an aloo paratha.

The reason is quite elementary, my dear Watsons, I happen to be a vegetarian. And not the ‘vegetarian type’ of vegetarian that abound these days. To my own misfortune, I was born in a family that always looked at a rabbit as cute, while others looked at the supple meat (like in the case of a waterhole in Bangalore, where I saw a rabbit merrily hopping around, oblivious of the fact that the menu card there promoted rabbit fry).

As a kid I loved chickens and was mortified to know that people make soups out of them and horrors of horrors even drank it! As those cute-furry chicks came out of that oval egg, I could never even bring myself to even eating it and because of it I had to forsake almost all pastries, cakes, chocolates (I used to love Mars till I came to know) and what not. I was happily living this life of deprivation, and then I was married.

My better-half had quite other ideas about how to deal with chicken, goat, fish and other forms of animal life. She preferred to devour them. I’m now used to watching the relish on her face, when she dug into a Goan Prawn Curry, or bit a piece of tandoori chicken. It was then that I came to know from close quarters how mutton tastes (like soyabeen) or how it does not. I also came to know that while it might not be harder for a veggie to turn non-veggie, the versa is hard to make. Continue reading

Paragliding @ Panchgani

“Remember keep your legs straight, run fast and when you reach the edge — look straight and jump,” was Sultan Bhai’s  terse command for me. I would have readily followed his instruction, but for one simple thing, he was asking me to jump of a cliff in Panchgani overlooking a valley, a straight drop of a few thousand metres, enough to make Protinex  out of your bones. But, then, I had willingly chosen to undertake the mission and could only nod meekly in agreement, leaving everything to his good sense.
All geared up and in the air
Paragliding is not for the faint-hearted. The human body, for all its evolutionary beauty, is still fairly brittle and can barely take a big knock. So, surviving a fall from a few hundred feet is dicey, forget about a few thousands. Not to mention, there are scores of videos that are available on Youtube,  that capture how things can go horrifically wrong in a matter of seconds. Unlike other sports, the risks are fairly high and you cannot bet on the outcome.

Yet, standing there on the cliff, I must have seen some 9-10 nervous people jumping of the cliff, soaring in the air and returning quite safely to reassure my worried heart. Also the fact that I would not be alone on the trip, there would an experienced hand with me on the sojourn to take care of all the technicalities and also to ensure that after some minutes on the sky, I land safely back on terra firma. Considering my over-healthy frame, my para-guide Babu, waited for the wind currents to increase a bit. His main worry was that once we jump, it should not be that my weight pulls us both down towards certain doom. Hence, I had to wait till early-evening before taking the plunge.

The price for a few minutes in the sky was not cheap. For low-flying 15 minutes, it was 1500 bucks and for high-flying 30 minutes it was 3000. I opted for the latter as I didn’t know when next I will be air-borne, so might as well as make the best of it right now. Before the flight, the guys make you sign a declaration bond, stating that in case of an accident there is none else to blame, etc. Believe me, at that moment the declaration form seemed ominous. Continue reading