A customs officer once asked me what I was exporting. When I told him I was exporting software, he asked me to show him the software. How does one show software? Should I show him the floppy disk I was exporting it in? Or should I show him the printouts of the code? Or should I show him the contracts that were yet to be drafted, forget about being signed?
On another occasion, another customs officer told me that I needed to leave samples of what I was exporting with him. I was forced to leave the floppy disk of the software with him. The diligent officer immediately planted a stapler pin through the floppy disk and attached it to the form, thereby destroying the media and rendering it unreadable.
For the longest time, everybody’s understanding of software differed immensely. This confusion continued into the 1980s, and it was getting challenging to grow the business. The more I met young software entrepreneurs, the more I realised that my frustration was not unique. Something had to be done.
Then, at a business event, I met a technology teacher. We immediately struck a chord over 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 anyone noticed about him was his compulsive need to learn everything. If he found out about a particular technology, he would lock himself up in a room and emerge from it only after becoming a sort of expert on it. He was filled with a childlike zest for technology. We soon became friends and confidants. Over the years, his inquisitiveness only grew.
In the mid-1980s, many of these conversations were happening at monthly gatherings at Vijay Mukhi’s house. Soon, they were brimming with entrepreneurs in the technology business, 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 that the sponsors shouldn’t push their personal agendas. All we would offer was to acknowledge their contribution.
Such gatherings were probably where the seeds of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), and many such ideas were sown. We would discuss about emerging ideas like the Internet and (Cyber) Security. These gatherings reminded me of Kaka’s outings with his friends for those fabled 2.30 p.m. coffee meetings at the Gaylord restaurant.
In one such gathering in 1986, I stood with a large group over drinks. Everyone was venting about the bureaucracy. I had a grievance, too.
A major joint venture between the venerable DEC and Hinditron had been hanging in limbo since 1985 (eventually, the deal was closed in 1987). Others at the party broke into a tirade about how the bureaucracy had shackled us because it just did not understand software.
In that moment of collective catharsis, I shared an idea that had been brewing in my head for a long time. I suggested that we must, together, form an association to work along with the government on its regulations, and bring a shift in their thinking and approach. We were young software entrepreneurs, who, instead of innovating, were battling paperwork in government offices. Having experienced the well-oiled machine that the US business environment was, I could tell what India was missing out on.
A lot of ideas get slapped on the table under the influence of alcohol. Many get readily accepted, too. But they are as readily forgotten with the hangover the next morning. So, to put things into motion, I quickly called for a meeting to further the germ of the idea. I suggested we meet the very next day at the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Though there was no reason to believe then that the others were as serious as I was.
The next day, my fears were confirmed. Of the about thirty people 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 put together a list of the fifteen most influential people from the software services industry in Mumbai. I invited all fifteen to a meeting in the Hinditron office in the Eros Cinema building. They were the decision-makers at the biggest companies. I was doubtful they would come.
My hopes soared when almost all of them showed up. I introduced them to the idea of forming an industry body that could pitch the software industry’s interests to the government. The people in the room could not have been more supportive. Each had a personal, grand vision for the potential of the services business. We now had this core group that could start involving everyone else before we officially formed our industry association.
Forming an industry association was, of course, not a new idea. The ancient Romans recognised a collegium or a corpus as a group that had been conferred the status of a legal entity. There were many collegia of sellers who specialised in a craft. For example, the famous corpus naviculariorum was the guild for long-distance shippers in the ancient port of Ostia Antica. In present-day England, there are guilds that are several centuries old. Today, in hindsight, it is hard 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 tens of local associations around the country. For instance, the ones in Pune and Chandigarh hosted IT entrepreneurs locally to discuss issues close to them. But because these were sporadic efforts at a local level, they were far from making any impact on a national scale.
The biggest association then was the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology (MAIT). At that time, very few people had realised the potential of the software. On the other hand, electronics was considered a sunrise industry.
Also, in my opinion, MAIT was a club of Delhi-based industrialists who enjoyed the power accorded to them by their proximity to the politicians and bureaucrats. I remember the CEO of one of the computer hardware companies asked me once, “Why are you unhappy? What is it that is bothering you? Bataiye, kaun sa officer aapki industry ko pareshan kar raha hai? Hum unko transfer karva denge.” I thus found them a group of businessmen who did things the way they deemed fit, often serving the interests of their companies ahead of the nation.
Excerpted with permission from The Maverick Effect: The Inside Story of India’s IT Revolution, Harish Mehta, HarperCollins India.