If there is one industry which has decisively changed the way the world sees India, it must be the Information Technology (IT) sector. In FY22, the IT industry generated $227 billion in revenues accounting for 9 per cent of India’s GDP and 51 per cent of services exports from the country. Today, the IT sector directly employs 5 million-plus people in well-paying, white-collar jobs. More than the contribution to the economy and jobs, it globally changed the image of India from being perceived as the land of snake charmers to that of coding whizzes.
While there have been numerous stories and even some books on the evolution and rise of the IT industry in India, a definitive account was missing. This book plugs that important gap. That too from not just an industry insider but a person who shaped its evolution.
What started as a project of passion for Kris Gopalakrishnan a co-founder of Infosys, to record and preserve the progress of the industry through an aptly named non-profit called ‘Itihaasa’ (Sanskrit for ‘it happened thus’) resulting in hundreds of hours of recorded interviews with 50 of the industry’s movers and shakers, eventually has led to this book.
Kris, along with two former Infosys colleagues, N Dayasindhu and Krishnan Narayanan, has managed to capture the zeitgeist of Indian IT’s birth, the almost impossible odds it overcame and, in the process, also manages to bust a few myths associated with the sector.
For one, the often-heard shibboleth that Indian IT grew despite the government and mostly due to its benign neglect by it. Like most falsehoods, it contains a grain of truth but the book clearly demonstrates the stellar role played by visionary bureaucrats like N Vittal and Dr N Seshagiri apart from numerous academic stalwarts like R Narasimhan, V Rajaraman, PVS Rao and S Sadagopan, employed at state-run institutions such as the IITs and IISc in shaping the industry.
It also highlights the enthusiasm brought in by Rajiv Gandhi and his compatriot band of ‘computer cowboys’ who helped kickstart telecom deregulation thus helping the growth of the IT sector. Even the perception that somehow IT industry foundations were laid only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the book demonstrates, is inaccurate. It traces the first arrival of a computer to 1955, employed by Prof PC Mahalanobis - now mainly known for the country’s five-year plans.
It was a a HEC-2M computer purchased by India with funding assistance from USSR and the UN for a then princely sum of ₹2 lakh. This, the authors say, was the first digital computer not only in India but possibly in mainland Asia. Computer courses were being offered as early as in the 1960s at IIT Kanpur (IITK) and the first computer to its campus had to be carted on the back of a bullock cart!
Today it is almost impossible to talk about the IT industry without using the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI), the authors share a nugget of how John McCarthy – a Stanford University professor and the man who coined the term AI – on a visit to IITK helped donate a timesharing machine, PDP-1. Students of IITK, of course, like all students universally, partly used it to develop one of the first computer games, ‘Spacewar,’ to which many were addicted. These kind of delightful anecdotes in the book indicates that the foundation for the industry was laid at least two to three decades prior to the commonly acknowledged timeline of 1990s.
While an FC Kohli, Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Azim Premji or a Shiv Nadar, today, are seen as the poster boys for the Indian IT industry, the book shines light on some of the lesser-known heroes like Dewang Mehta who helped the sector become the colossus it is today. The authors in detail cover how the industry collectively converted every adversity into an opportunity – be it the onerous regulatory restrictions initially imposed by the government, the dotcom bust and the post-2008 financial meltdown, the maturity with which it handled the Satyam fiasco or even the recent Covid crisis.
From pioneering the Global Development Model (GDM), to popularising ESOPs (employee stock option plan), international listing which involved greater transparency in accounting and operations, the book clearly highlights several initiatives which the sector took. It also points to how global players like GE and Citibank early on spotted the opportunity to leverage the India tech talent for their worldwide operations and today more than 1,700 global companies have set up research and development centres as captives.
Thank the pioneers
If today India has Aadhar or an Arogya Setu app which helped during the pandemic it must thank the IT industry pioneers. When Vittal, then secretary of DoE in the 1990s - while providing some regulatory concessions, demanded that Indian IT promise to quadruple revenues within four years - they did remembering the old Akbar-Birbal parable. When Akbar asked that a horse be made to fly, Birbal sought a year, justifying that who knows what will happen within that time frame ‘the emperor may die, I may die or the horse may fly.’ From $131 million to more than a billion dollars within the four years of Vittal’s stipulation, the Indian IT horse clearly flew.
Even for somebody like me who has closely covered the industry for nearly 25 years across multiple media houses and having interacted with almost all the key characters mentioned in the book, it still held a few insights and surprises.
While they have touched on topics like why and how India missed the IT hardware bus and the road ahead for the sector, a more in-depth look into them would have been welcome. Except for some minor quibbles – like software export numbers for 1990 is stated as $128 million in one instance and $131 million elsewhere – the book is a must-read for anybody who wants an in-depth understanding of the evolution of Indian IT