Indian achievements in computing are by no measure small. And many have contributed to the way it’s evolved over the years. But who are the few who stand out, the few in whose footsteps the rest follow? Many have crossed the seven seas and made their fame and fortune abroad. But there have been some who stayed back and lent their shoulders to nudge forward the wheels of Indian IT. It’s from those who stayed back that we’ve chosen nine of our ten.
We have here our list of ten Indians who’ve made the critical difference to how computing evolved in this country. The first nine are in alphabetical order. For obvious reasons, our choice of the Indian IT man of the century has been kept to the last. Do tell us whether you agree with it.
Azim Premji recently shot into the limelight as the wealthiest Indian. Otherwise, he’s pretty much been off the glare of publicity. In an industry where hype is the order of the day, this in itself is a rare phenomenon. But then, his achievements have been of no mean magnitude. Premji is widely recognized as the strategist behind the transformation of what was a vegetable oil company into the IT powerhouse that’s Wipro today.
Premji finds his place in our list not because he’s the richest Indian, or because he built up Wipro. He finds his place here because he’s been able to push Wipro into creating intellectual property—something not many Indian IT companies have considered doing. He’s ensured that India no longer remains the land of programmers who find contentment in coding the submenu of the submenu under a menu item. He’s proved that Indians can make products that compete on an equal footing with the best in the global market.
The Indian politician wasn’t supposed to understand the nuances of IT. If anything, he was supposed to be anti-computerization. This was till Chandrababu Naidu almost single-handedly changed that image once and for all. Naidu’s IT-savvy image and IT-friendly policies made him the darling of tech CEOs worldwide, and saw an unprecedented flow of investment into his home state—Andhra Pradesh. In the era of liberalization, this was something other politicians couldn’t afford to ignore. And soon, we had every politician of every hue swearing by computers.
Naidu’s final test came during the recent elections, when many felt that his penchant for IT and not for populist, election-oriented largesse would prove to be his undoing. By winning handsomely, Naidu proved his critics wrong, once again. For single-handedly making the Indian political establishment IT-friendly, Nara Chandrababu Naidu takes his place amongst the ten most significant contributors to the furtherance of IT in India.
F C Kohli
F C Kohli played a leading role in the evolution of the many Tata companies that are involved with IT. From Tata Consultancy Services to the former Tata IBM to Tata Infotech (formerly Tata Unisys), he’s had a role to play in making them what they are today. But it’s not for this that F C Kohli takes his place in this august list. If India is known as one of the best pools of programming talent today, a lion’s share of the credit for building that reputation goes to TCS and FC Kohli. At a time when it was easier to body-shop and send programmers abroad straightaway on recruitment, TCS under Kohli set up training centers for the software professionals they recruited. A good majority of Indian software programmers, particularly those working abroad, proudly claim to come from Kohli’s stables. For that alone, we owe a debt of gratitude to this grand old man of Indian IT.
N R Narayana Murthy
Designer of the first Basic Interpreter implemented in India. Part of the team that built this country’s first multi-user operating system. No, it’s not for these that NR Narayana Murthy is known the world over. He’s known as the founding father of one of the hottest companies listed on the NASDAQ. But again, that’s not why he finds his place in this list.
In a country given to sending its programmers abroad for job work, in a country that excels in distributing others’ products rather than creating its own, Narayana Murthy created the first globally respected Indian IT company. He proved that India could indeed stand head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to creating world-class products. Unlike many other titans of industry, this one-time Communist sympathizer not only created wealth, he also distributed it generously. Many are the crorepathis that Infosys has created. And many are the worthwhile causes that they together have espoused. For that, Narayana Murthy more than deserves his place here.
Shiv Nadar has repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny knack to be at the right place before the right time, so that when the right time comes, he’s way ahead of his competitors. He’s the first Indian IT entrepreneur to think and build a global presence. Leveraging on his alliances, particularly on the joint venture with HP, he built a global empire that wasn’t devoured by any MNC trying to expand its reach.
If anyone deserves credit for extending the reach of the computer to every nook and corner of this country, it’s Shiv Nadar. HCL was one of the first hardware vendors to have a distribution network that reached all over India. Doing this at a time when computer usage in the country was at its infancy required vision, and seriously, a lot of guts. And for that, Nadar finds his place in this elite club.
What Chandrababu Naidu did for the politician, Nagaraj Vittal did for the bureaucrat. In the early nineties, as secretary of the moribund DoT, Vittal literally shook the roots of the bureaucratic milieu with his pro-IT policies. His iconoclastic influence was not limited to IT—it extended to the telecom sector. Many of the organizational and policy changes initiated in these two areas can be traced back to Vittal.
Unlike the typical bureaucrat, Vittal was extremely accessible. Thus, he was able to create a constituency that was not only sympathetic, but was also able to ensure that his vision stayed on long after he himself had moved on. For inculcating tech-friendliness in the bureaucracy, and for sowing the seeds of the sea change that characterized future IT and telecom policies, Nagaraj Vittal takes his place in the special ten.
Prof V Rajaraman
In the Indian ethos, the teacher—the Guru has a special place, just after one’s own mother and father, and before God. The influence of the teacher transcends generations, and to the early teachers of computing in this country, we owe our gratitude for molding so many world-class IT practitioners. The first, and perhaps the most well-known of our teachers is Professor Rajaraman.
At a time when computing was more or less unheard of as a discipline in this country, he came back from abroad to set up a computer science department at IIT Kanpur. At a time when there were no textbooks about computer science, Rajaraman wrote fifteen of them. The teacher whose books were the only source of knowledge for an entire generation of Indian technologists and programmers, Prof Rajaraman stands apart even from the others who grace our list.
More than a decade before Chandrababu Naidu became the country’s first IT-savvy chief minister, and years before Vittal articulated his prescription for change, Rajiv Gandhi had become the first Indian prime minister to have an IT policy in place. The various technology missions he created—and that includes CDAC—saw the country progressing by leaps and bounds in technology adoption and implementation.
The initiatives may have lost some of their steam during the latter part of his term. One may not agree with his politics or even his style of functioning. But there’s no questioning the fact that long before Indian entrepreneurs had seen IT as an opportunity, long before programmers began flocking to US embassies for H1 visas, Rajiv Gandhi had taken the first critical steps required for the later build-up. And for that, the youngest prime minister of India takes his place in this august group.
Vijay P Bhatkar
It all started when the US government decided that India couldn’t buy a Cray supercomputer for weather forecasting. The Param was a fitting answer, if ever there was one, to that slap on the face. The Param proved that the Third world could do what the developed world could, and that too at a fraction of the cost.
For leading the team that created this fitting answer, for proving that even the rarified realms of supercomputing were not unconquerable, Vijay P
Bhatkar, former executive director of CDAC takes his place among the special ten who’ve had a telling impact on the evolution of computing in this country.