Harish Mehta recounts the NILF journey

NASSCOM started its journey in 1988 as Harishbhai reminisced about a time that was, and the iconic Dewang Mehta who would change the face of NASSCOM forever. Such was the man’s dynamism, that despite being a Chartered Accountant by profession, he was equally conversant with film photography, graphics and also boasted of extraordinary writing skills. His much talked-about article that appeared in the Economic Times in 1990- incidentally it was the year he took over as NASSCOM Chief- was about his vision for NASSCOM and the future of the IT industry. Harishbhai, having read it, found it to be very interesting, and after interacting with Dewang Mehta at NILF, was convinced that he had found the man who could lead the NASSCOM secretariat. The rest as they say is history. Dewang was a very patriotic man who really believed that India had the potential to be a global powerhouse, he added. The first conference that was held in Delhi, was supported by 30-40 members of NASSCOM. Their undivided and untiring efforts helped shape the conference, those days. It was here that Harishbhai met Dewang Mehta, and in a way, the first edition of NILF, was instrumental in bringing the stalwarts together and scripting the IT industry’s destiny.

In the early years, the focus was more on government matters and how to bring about a change in the existing IT policy, copyright act and position software as an intellectual and intangible property. For the industry to grow, it was essential that these issues, be made a representation of, at the highest level and the conference helped, to do just that. In later years  these efforts, would pave the way for garnering government support. The growth potential of IT exports and its impact needed to be communicated too. It was all about showcasing the Software industry to the government and to the world at large, to attract large investments. Once Dewang Mehta took over the reins, one of his early initiatives, was to position NASSCOM,  as India’s premier chamber for the Software Industry. He was also instrumental in publishing the Strategic Review – the almanac of the IT BPO industry- borne out of a need to integrate information, which hitherto existed in a fragmented state, based more on hearsay, than any structured research efforts.

Social evenings – the impact:
Harishbhai also shared his thoughts on how the social evenings became so very popular at the NILF. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, brand India needed repositioning: Having earned a poor reputation in the global manufacturing industry, because of the indifferent quality of output. The country was being considered for its trading capabilities than for any high-end work. The fashion show was a beautiful and a subtle way of positioning the new India. The positive vibrancy, helped create “the new India image”, which was quite different from the one in the past. Not the old India which the western media liked to criticize.

The Americans were only exposed to Indian professionals who were doctors and engineers but not the software professionals who were now taking over. In the early stage, Europeans kept away from the Indian software industry, only to lament later on a missed opportunity.  Because of the popularity of the social evenings, someone had jocularly remarked whether NASSCOM was digressing into running a social club rather than a software association. Those days, the industry players were known to be closely guarded about strategies and these social evenings proved to be an icebreaker. Progressively, more people started participating in informal discussions and opening up. This helped professionals to network and connect with one another and further the cause of the industry. Gradually, the belief spread far and wide that the size of the pie (read market opportunities) can only get bigger as industry people share best practices, by bringing in existing players and encouraging new entrants to join the bandwagon. It was indeed a challenge for NASSCOM to bring the industry together and make a common representation as one voice.

In one of the instances, a fashion show was planned in Elephanta caves. It was a mammoth task to ferry-in 700 + delegates, that needed sanctions from the forest department, navy and others. It was an experience like none other, Harishbhai said quite proudly. The team had hired more than 20 boats and had the navy escort the participants. Since there was no light at the venue, generators had to be arranged for, which made the experience even more noteworthy.

The other social evening equally noteworthy was the one at Turf Club, which saw the industry captains, dressed in different attire. Harishbhai, as Swami ji, blessed the industry, Mr Mittal as Gandhiji,  Ganesh Natarajan as Shivaji and Atul Nishar as Lord Shiva absolutely wowing the audience. Such initiatives taken by NASSCOM in the past have gone a long way in building a sense of openness amongst the industry players, he said. Dewang Mehta would play the national anthem at every NASSCOM conference as a mark of patriotism, he added.

The Evolution of the event:
Over the years, speakers at NILF, started sharing their insights more candidly and as the industry also opened up, people started coming together, leaving their differences behind. Of course, there has been a constant challenge to bring in the sponsors, delegates and make them see value. It was tough then, it is also tough now. Nothing has changed, at least on this count. In the early 90’s decade, India was perceived as a nation of “cyber coolies” having  earned the moniker for its ability to deliver at a much lower cost. We wanted to change this impression by showcasing success stories of brilliant entrepreneurs, who had carved a name in the global high-tech arena – especially in Silicon valley, Mr Mehta said. The Leadership Forum has always been a platform to position and reposition the Indian IT industry, whenever the need arose. In 1993, the secretariat was able to get the likes of Kanwal Rekhi, Vinod Khosla, Umang Gupta, along with Narayana Murthy and others under one roof. It was a great opportunity to position brand India as a software superpower, capable of delivering high end jobs involving advanced technology. The presence of these highly successful and popular Indian Americans helped the industry gain global acceptance, Mr Harish Mehta said. Over the years and now, the sheer quality and profile of the speakers has gone up by leaps and bounds. As the bar gets continuously raised, and expectations soar, for NASSCOM though it’s a “good problem” to have at hand.

Vision 2020 for NILF:
“I haven’t really thought of that”, added Mr Mehta, quite candidly. But, he does see the impact of social networking sites playing a significant role in future. On quizzed, whether there could be two different versions of the NILF at different times / geographical location, Harishbahai replied in the negative. In his opinion, it was unlikely. And just as the World Economic Forum at Davos, it was important to position the Leadership Forum too, he added. It is a platform to bring all forces together and leverage their cumulative power to drive the IT BPO industry. The dynamics and the eco-system will keep changing, but the platform will always be there, to make a sound and unbiased representation of issues that need to be addressed.

Suggestion – the road ahead:
Managing the growing size and popularity was a constant challenge. How do we achieve a uniform market segmentation, yet bring under one umbrella all common issues? The Special Interest Groups (for e.g. in BPO & HR) need to come together, and address issues unique to their own segments. The event, needs to address the opportunities that exist in the domestic market and work towards making technology a viable option for the masses.

We thanked Mr Harish Mehta for his valuable inputs, even as he wished us good luck for this year. Yet another brilliant recap ended and we were sad to let the memories go. After all, TIME waits for no one.

We will see you soon in Mumbai Harishbhai!

One Response
  1. Anil Sahasrabudhe

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