How the seeds of the powerful Indian IT organization that became Nasscom were sown
A customs officer asked me one day what I was exporting. When I told him I was exporting software, he asked me to show him the software. How to display software? Should I show him the floppy disk I was exporting it to? Or should I show him the printouts of the code? Or should I show him the contracts that weren’t written yet, forgetting to be signed?
On another occasion, another customs officer told me that I had to leave him samples of what I was exporting. I had to leave him the software diskette. The diligent officer immediately thrust a stapler into the diskette and attached it to the form, thereby destroying the media and rendering it unreadable.
For a very long time, everyone’s understanding of software differed wildly. This confusion continued into the 1980s and it became difficult to grow the business. The more young software entrepreneurs I met, the more I realized that my frustration was not unique. Something must be done.
Then, at a business event, I met a technology professor. We immediately struck a chord with the problem of always having to explain ourselves and always being misunderstood. It turned out that Vijay Mukhi was not just a teacher but a pioneer. The first thing you noticed about him was his compulsive need to learn everything. If he discovered a particular technology, he would lock himself in a room and only come out after he had become something of an expert on it. He was filled with a childlike zest for technology. We quickly became friends and confidants. Over the years, his curiosity only grew.
By the mid-1980s, many of these conversations were taking place at monthly get-togethers at Vijay Mukhi’s. Soon they were overflowing with entrepreneurs in the technology sector, and these meetings evolved into the Bombay Computer Club, and each month had a different sponsor for the meeting. Even back then, we were sure sponsors shouldn’t push their personal agendas. All we were offering was to recognize their contribution.
Such gatherings were probably the seeds of the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), and many such ideas were sown. We discussed emerging ideas like the Internet and (cyber)security. These gatherings reminded me of Kaka’s outings with his friends for those legendary 2:30 p.m. coffee get-togethers at the Gaylord restaurant.
At one such gathering in 1986, I found myself with a large group over drinks. Everyone was talking about bureaucracy. I also had a grievance.
A major joint venture between the venerable DEC and Hinditron had been hanging in limbo since 1985 (the deal finally closed in 1987). Other people at the party went on a tirade about how bureaucracy had us chained down because they just didn’t understand software.
In that moment of collective catharsis, I shared an idea that had been simmering in my head for a long time. I suggested that we should together form an association to work with the government on their regulations and bring about a change in their thinking and approach. We were young software entrepreneurs who, instead of innovating, struggled with paperwork in government offices. Having experienced the well-oiled machine that was the business environment in the United States, I could tell what was missing in India.
Many ideas are thrown on the table under the influence of alcohol. Many are also readily accepted. But they are just as easily forgotten with the hangover the next morning. So, to set things in motion, I quickly called a meeting to get the seed of the idea going. I suggested that we meet the next day at the Sea Lounge of the Taj Mahal hotel. Although there was no reason to believe then that the others were as serious as me.
The next day, my fears were confirmed. Of the thirty or so people present at Vijay Mukhi’s party, only three showed up. I consoled myself that it was enough to get the ball rolling. We discussed the next steps and made a list of the fifteen most influential people in the software services industry in Mumbai. I invited the fifteen to a meeting in the Hinditron office in the Eros Cinema building. They were the decision makers of the biggest corporations. I doubted they would come.
My hopes skyrocketed when almost everyone showed up. I introduced them to the idea of forming an industry body that could represent the interests of the software industry to the government. The people in the room couldn’t have been more supportive. Each had a personal and grand vision of the potential of the service business. We now had this core group that could start involving everyone before formally forming our industry association.
The formation of an industry association was of course not a new idea. The ancient Romans recognized a collegium or corpus as a group which had been conferred the status of a moral person. There were many sales colleges specializing in a trade. For example, the famous corpus naviculariorum was the guild of long-distance shippers in the ancient port of Ostia Antica. In today’s England, there are centuries-old guilds. Today, with hindsight, it is difficult to endorse the values of most guilds. Many only served the interests of their founders.
In fact, a software industry association in India was not a new idea either. There were already dozens of local associations across the country. For example, those in Pune and Chandigarh hosted IT entrepreneurs locally to discuss issues close to them. But because these were sporadic efforts at the local level, they were far from having an impact on a national scale.
The largest association then was the Association of Manufacturers of Information Technology (MAIT). At that time, very few people had realized the potential of the software. On the other hand, electronics was considered a fledgling industry.
Also, in my view, MAIT was a club of Delhi-based industrialists who enjoyed the power given to them by their proximity to politicians and bureaucrats. I remember the CEO of one of the hardware companies once asked me, “Why are you unhappy? What bothers you? Bataiye, kaun sa industry officer aapki ko pareshan kar raha hai? Hum unko transfer karva denge. So I found in them a group of businessmen who did things as they saw fit, often serving the interests of their businesses before the nation.
Excerpted with permission from The Maverick Effect: The Inside Story of India’s IT RevolutionHarish Mehta, HarperCollins India.