The Father of the Indian software revolution, a visionary who saw the future of technology, a mentor to many current top executives, founder and first CEO of Tata Consultancy Services, a master strategist that earned him the sobriquet of ‘Bhishma Pitamaha’ and Padma Bhushan awardee Faqir Chand Kohli passed away on Thursday at the age of 96.
Kohli was a legend who not only laid the very foundations on which India’s prowess as a global software powerhouse has been built, Kohli also led innovations in far-ranging areas including adult literacy, water purification, software engineering, software automation, complex-systems and cybernetics.
Born and raised in Peshawar (in present-day Pakistan), Kohli graduated in Physics from the Punjab University. He was keen on joining the Indian Navy but in 1946, he got a scholarship to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario where he pursued a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. In 1951 he acquired a Master’s in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in US.
In 1951, Kohli returned to newly independent India to join Tata Electric where he set up a digital computer to plan load dispatch. Seeing his interest in technology, in 1969, he was asked to help with Tata group’s IT services firm. Then there was no looking back as Kohli not only took TCS to make it the largest Indian IT services firm but also inspired a generation of leaders. N Chandrasekaran, Chairman, Tata Sons is one such leader who was hired by Kohli as a trainee at TCS. “ Despite his momentous achievements, his simplicity and thoughtfulness is a lesson for us all. His enduring optimism and his ability to make ambitious bets leaves a legacy—one that has advanced a nation,” says Chandrasekaran.
“Kohli will be remembered as one of the fathers of India’s successful IT industry. He was gracious, unassuming, and always willing to help,” said Ratan Tata.
T V Mohandas Pai, Chairman, Aarin Capital Partners said that Kohli was a pioneer and a great leader of people. “He was a techie who demonstrated that India can create high quality software and building companies. I met him a few times and he was always gracious and attentive. He inspired others,” Pai said.
For Ganesh Natarajan, Executive Chairman and Founder of 5F World, formerly CEO of Zensar and his wife Uma, Kohli was a personal mentor from the time they first holidayed together at a NASSCOM Retreat in Jodhpur in1998. “He was always looking at the next frontier. He started talking about computing in Indian languages in the nineties and his perpetual grouse was that we are doing nothing for electronics hardware.”
Jayant Krishna, Group CEO, UK India Business Council who worked with Kohli at Tata group said one rarely gets such genuinely caring leaders and life-long mentors like him in today’s world. ” He retired from TCS 24 years ago and I left TCS almost 5 years back, but we still get a basket of mangoes grown in Dr. Kohli’s Alipore home orchard, every year – without fail,” Krishan said
Even after he retired from TCS in 1999 after an illustrious career, Kohli was driven in recent years to use technology to enable social upliftment especially in the area of education. He helped create a software that used images to teach words to adults before teaching them the alphabet. By 2009, the software had helped more than 120,000 Indians become functionally literate. As S Ramadorai, who succeeded Kohli as CEO of TCS puts it “He was a brilliant technocrat and a business leader with varied interests. He was passionate about the development of our nation and its youth.”
In an address to Computer Society of India in 1975, Kohli summed up his mission. “Many years ago, there was an Industrial revolution. We missed it due to factors over which we had no control. Today, there is a new revolution – a revolution in Information Technology – which requires neither mechanical bias nor mechanical temperament. Primarily, it requires the capability to think clearly. This we have in abundance. We have an opportunity even to assume leadership. If we miss this opportunity, those who follow us will not forgive us for our tardiness and negligence. We want to develop technology on our own and be the masters of our destiny”.
While Kohli has moved on to the next frontier, his vision will continue to inspire many to move forward on the path he charted out.