“In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years” - Abraham Lincoln
Mr. F. C. Kohli, a legend and popularly known as the father of the IT industry, passed away at the age of 96. A lot has been written about his contribution to the industry. He was the architect of what is now India’s most valuable sector—the IT sector which has continued its growth journey over many decades. He lived a wonderful life—one that we should all celebrate and learn from. I would always remember him for the person and outstanding human being he was.
Kohli Saab, as he was very fondly called, was first and foremost an engineer at heart. He was also a great learner and a teacher. Over his lifetime he straddled several generations of technology evolution and kept himself constantly updated. The TCS library in Air India building was just across his room and he could be often seen looking for the latest books. For him learning never ended—and nor did teaching.
He retired as CEO of TCS in 1996 and for 24 years post that he attended office every single day wearing his tweed jacket, tie, and maintaining a fixed schedule. He would walk from his residence in Commonwealth to the 11th floor office at Air India building and spend the day reading, meeting people, and getting involved in different programs. His table was always piled up with books, reports, and his hand written notes. I always wondered if he ever had time to see the lovely view of the queen’s necklace.
He always had a sense of purpose and was very committed to finding technology solutions for India’s challenges. He initiated several programs for educating masses to leverage technology and upgrading teaching in engineering colleges. He was the champion of Indian language computing and would not miss a single opportunity to push each of us in the industry and the government for that.
I first met him in the early 90’s having just joined the tech sector moving from the auto industry. He struck me as a very passionate and straight-talking person. There was an aura around him and people would be scared of his ‘no nonsense’ approach. Kohli Saab worked with a sense of dissatisfaction. He always believed more could be done and better. It was never easy to satisfy him nor was he ever satisfied with what he himself accomplished. That kept him going. He was a demanding boss and initially people would be fearful of working with him. It was only later they would realize that he had the same standards for himself and this was his way of coaching and mentoring people.
Kohli Saab was very proud of the large number of senior technocrats and executives that TCS contributed to the industry. He would be willing to take a leap of faith with people by identifying new opportunities and roles that they were not ready for and then push them to perform. Many of his colleagues remember him asking for a monthly handwritten report and he would send each of them back with his comments and suggestions. This was his own unique way of developing people. When he travelled abroad, he would visit homes of TCS executives for dinner and then always remember and enquire about their families. He was a demanding boss, but also a deeply caring person.
Kohli Saab was essentially a very private person but there was this very human and affable side of him. If you were lucky to be with him at tea-time, he would pour you the most delightful brewed tea. He was a connoisseur of good tea.
Over the years, I had many opportunities to meet him particularly during the Nasscom days. He would call me at least once every two months and give his frank views on various issues. He would encourage me and, in a sense, became a mentor. Talking to him, I would often reflect how after so many years, he could still maintain that passion and energy for the industry and the country.
Kohli Saab would attend Nasscom’s Annual EC Retreats along with his very charming and graceful wife Swarn ji. He would participate in all the activities and always be a sport in joining the dance floor to shake a leg as the music started. Over the years, we also learnt how to mix his favorite tipple. He would be a bit annoyed if we ever fussed and tried to help or give physical support saying, “God has given me enough strength to manage myself”.
In 2004 we had taken a Nasscom delegation to Pakistan, he and Swarn Ji also joined. He was really excited as he was born in Peshawar and was visiting Nankana Saheb. A special moment in the trip was when we all realized it was their marriage anniversary and had an impromptu celebration in the hotel lobby with a redo of the jaymala (garlands). It was the first time I saw Kohli Saab get emotional and was visibly touched.
We met him last on the third of March in Mumbai when he and Swarnji joined us for the launch of my wife, Vidhu’s cookbook. Several friends from industry were there— it was heartening to see that each of them went up to him and sought his blessings. Little did we realize that this was one of the last public functions he attended.
To me he is a role model of a very productive, impactful and complete life lived well. We cherish the memories and while we will miss him, we celebrate his zest for life that has left such an indelible influence on the generations to come. Rest in Peace Kohli Saab.
Views are personal. The author is former president and chairman, Nasscom.