V Rajanna, Senior Vice President & Global Head – Technology Business Unit, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) & Former President – The Hyderabad Software Enterprises Association (HYSEA)
Padma Bhushan Shri F C Kohli has passed on, leaving a void that none can fill. The world lost a pioneer and a visionary, a philosopher, a mentor, a humanitarian, and a person who cared deeply about all those whose lives he touched. The evening of 26 November flooded my mind with memories of Dr Kohli and the little time that I was fortunate enough to spend with the legend.
I feel blessed to have spent some quality time with Dr Kohli during my stint in Taiwan, China, and later, in Hyderabad too. The very first time I had the opportunity to meet Dr Kohli was at Tata Research Development and Design Centre (TRDDC), the R&D arm of TCS, in the early 90s. After all these years, I have a clear recollection of his visionary presentation at TRDDC on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Knowledge Based Systems. Dr Kohli was, perhaps, already convinced that AI would become a dominant technology someday, for enterprise growth and transformation. In those days, AI was only an elective in many universities as part of the undergraduate curriculum, and during his presentation, Dr Kohli emphasized the need to work with the academic partners to make AI a mandatory subject. He had tremendous respect for academic partnerships and was already discussing with many IITs,NITs, and other universities regarding the inclusion of AI as a mandatory subject in their curricula. The TCS-funded Kohli Centre on Intelligent Systems at IIIT Hyderabad, one of the top-notch global AI institutions, is a fitting tribute to the visionary leader.
When I was working at TRDDC in the 1990s, I had another opportunity to interact with Dr Kohli. Although I was junior then, I got to write a Memo (the practice those days) on Software Testing of Knowledge Based Systems through Prof Nori, who was the then Software R&D Head at TRDDC. I also received an immediate response from him! This is an experience I have treasured through the years, as I have the other experiences where I had the occasion to interact with him more closely.
Dr Kohli whole-heartedly supported and nurtured Industry bodies like Nasscom and Computer Society of India (CSI). He was certain that India’s talent pool would prove to be a game changer, paving the way for success in the Information Technology arena. During CSI convention at Ahmedabad in 1975, he said, “Many years ago, there was an industrial revolution. We missed it for reasons beyond our 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.” He ensured that India did not miss the Information Technology revolution and has left an indelible legacy for generations to come.
Dr Kohli had enormous fascination and respect for China and Taiwan, for their phenomenal success in Hardware and Manufacturing, and hence, he was the frequent visitor to these countries. He used to say, “I am coming here to learn”. For a country head like me, just accompanying TCS “C” leadership meant learning of many valuable management lessons. Dr Kohli would ask many questions ranging from those about the country’s GDP and Per Capita Income, to their share in Manufacturing, etc., which resulted in tremendous learning for me. In fact, during one of Dr Kohli’s initial visits to Taiwan, I was saved only because Mr Chandra had asked me to prepare well on these topics just the night before.
Humility has been a defining characteristic of all truly great men in history, and Dr Kohli was no exception. During his trip to Taiwan, I took him to meet Dr K T Lee, regarded as the father of the hardware industry in greater China region, and Dr F C Lin, the then Head of Institute for Information Industry, Taiwan. Both Dr Lee and Dr Kohli had tremendous respect for each other. Dr Kohli once touched Dr Lee’s feet and sought his blessings. Dr Lin too had great respect for Dr Kohli and TCS. In his words, TCS means INDIANness. Dr Lin and his team once visited India on Dr Kohli’s invitation when they were personally hosted by Dr Kohli at the Air India Building. After their successful visit to India, Dr Lin sought to meet me in his office. I still remember what he said that day – “When I visited TCS, I witnessed INDIANness,Indian Pride and Modesty”.
I had the opportunity to meet Dr and Mrs Kohli again during Nasscom’s delegation to China, led by Mr Ramadorai who was Nasscom’s chairman then. The delegation spent four days in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Dr Kohli shared emphatically during the entire trip that India should learn Hardware and Manufacturing from China and that India wouldn’t be able to sustain growth without attaining self-sufficiency in hardware engineering and manufacturing. He spoke of an Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India) that is now being spoken of again.
Dr Kohli also visited Hyderabad regularly as he served on the board of LV Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI) for several years and stayed in touch with the Hyderabad team that was involved in giving shape to his brainchild, the Computer based Functional Literacy (CBFL) initiative. Visiting TCS and meeting the TCS team here was an absolute must in his schedule.
Dr Kohli was very proud of his team and always referred to them as family when he introduced them. He has touched the hearts of all those he worked with at a level far beyond work, and I was no exception. He would call me after reaching Mumbai each time he visited us, and even visited our home in Taiwan and had lunch with us. To me, meeting him was always very personal and emotional.
The things I most remember about him– his exuberance, energy and warmth, and fondness for meeting and interacting with young generation TCSers – come from the small moments and little things he did. In Hangzhou, Dr Kohli made sure he met the TCS China team late in the night although we had to proceed to Shanghai shortly. In Shanghai, as we walked on the Shanghai Bund, I was concerned that it was not only late but also a fair distance for him to walk, but he said “I am as young as you”. He would carry many books to read during his travel and wrote often. He always carried a few nice pens in a pouch in his signature briefcase. He had a fantastic handwriting!
My most cherished memory is that of the event where the Hyderabad Software Industry Association (HYSEA) conferred him with the Lifetime Achievement award few years back, during which, I had the fortune of receiving the HYSEA recognition from his hands along with Hon Minister of Telangana Mr K T Rama Rao.
There is a deep sense of loss today, as I recall these treasured moments. We do hope to live up to his principles and follow his guidance. Rest in peace, Sir.