C-DOT – How to set crazy goals, reach them and get fired?


CDOT – the early days: How to set crazy goals, work hard, get great things done and get fired for it?

This is about the years I spent in CDOT – the best years of my life. This posting is a bit longish. But I tried my best to keep it short — just couldn’t. Because it is also a key part of the great Indian telecom revolution!

1984-92 is a period during which a new family of complex central office switches got designed, manufactured, and deployed in the Indian telecom network. The network got readied for privatization of telecom sector ahead of all other sectors.

In 1983, as the cliché goes, “half of India was waiting for a telephone and those who had one were waiting for dial tone”. If you wanted a telephone line, you would have to wait for about 5 years to get one. But, by the ’90s, Indian telecom was world class. Today, India is an exciting economy. Of course, there are many things that are still getting fixed. Telecom is however one area which has been “fixed”. Indian telecom now is one of the most dynamic and fastest growing in the world — in August 2006, India added 5.9 Million new lines and broke many a growth records exceeding China in telecom growth rate. C-DOT’s role in bringing about this transformation is unique and indisputable.

For those who came in late, C-DOT was a great experiment started by the Government of India in 1984. The first phase of C-DOT’s existence ended in the early 90s with the successful development of a family of central office switches. Nothing like that happened before or after. Starting from scratch, C-DOT successfully built a suite of switching products – from small Rural Automatic Exchanges (RAX) to huge metro switches (MAX), and achieved large deployments across the nation. At one point of time, more than 50% of the Indian telecom network was running on C-DOT switches. Billions of $ worth of C-DOT designed switches got manufactured and deployed. That human capital spread everywhere – into Indian tech. and services companies, MNCs in India, and some like me became entrepreneurs.

But C-DOT’s nightmare began when Rajiv Gandhi lost the 1989 elections. And then the great Indian political game took over. The new minister for telecom came hammer and tongues on C-DOT. He saw in the high profile Sam Pitroda – a Rajiv political appointee and in CDOT – a Rajiv Gandhi pet project and not a national achievement.

Starting a new technology experiment …

Well, let me start from the beginning. Sam Pitroda was a telecom visionary. Son of a Gujarati carpenter; born in Orissa, he ends up in Chicago, builds a new telecom company and becomes history’s first person to build a switching system using microprocessors, files a slew of US patents (the last count exceeded 60) in telecom designs and becomes part of the who-is-who in telecom in the US in late 70s. His company gets acquired by Rockwell International and he makes his millions at a time when the glass ceiling for growth was pretty low for Indians in the US. He gets an urge to do something for India. Flies down to Delhi and asks for a one hour appointment with Mrs Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minster. While he was waiting at the PMO, in the last minute, he is told the meeting was curtailed to 15 minutes. He offers to go back and wait for another three months or whatever time it takes for the promised one hour time slot rather than get just a 15 minutes audience. PMO, a bit surprised at his guts, relents and he meets with Mrs. Gandhi. Sam is a great communicator, he convinces Mrs G to take a bold new step – to get India to design its own family of switching systems, build an Indian telecom product industry and modernize Indian telecom. Rajiv Gandhi, who was listening, likes what he heard. And, there begins a lasting friendship. Sam gets an OK for his project. He asks for a budget of Rs 360 Million (About $ 15 Million then). He gets it. He personally takes a salary of Re 1 year ! He, along with Mr G.B.Meemamsi of TRC and Dr MV Pitke of TIFR puts together a core team of about twelve.

I was part of that core team. Sam was talking of total liberalization of telecom back then (much before Narasimha Rao’s liberalization) and I am sure Rajiv Gandhi was thinking alike. Against stiff opposition, he brings in the ubiquitous STD PCO, a novel concept those days and which helped dramatically improve “Telephone accessibility”.

A family of switches from 128 terminal Rural switch (RAX) to 100,000 terminal metro switch (MAX) got designed and deployed. It took about 2,500 man years of combined effort and it continues to be one of the most complex hi-tech products designed in India. India became one of the few countries that have achieved such a distinction. The product got manufactured by private and state owned enterprises. With an Indian option available in C-DOT switch, MNC prices started coming down. The telephone density improved slowly and steadily thanks to the cheaper C-DOT switches and much later the advent of mobile telephony. And eventually, the next big step is taken – telecom becomes the sector earliest to be liberalized.

And, today in retrospect, among all key infrastructure segments in India – Telecom, Power, Transportation, Roads, Airports, Education and Health, Telecom has been fixed first. It is already world class. Today, Indian Telecom is the fastest growing in the world. Among many things, C-DOT and Sam Pitroda played an important role in the whole scheme of things. C-DOT demonstrated that “we can do it”, set on motion a technology capability building, and gave a boost for an industrial eco system for electronic products. It was sad a manufacturing industry didn’t take off as it could have. More about that later…

In the 80s, the work environment at C-DOT was fabulous. It was most unlike any Govt. funded R&D. It was better than the best private enterprise. Flexible, but extremely result oriented, very democratic, hard working, demanding as well as giving. It was a highly performance oriented culture. And, things were a bit idealistic – almost Utopian. For example, for many early years, the library in C-DOT was never locked and most times unmanned. It was open 24 hours. People were working practically round the clock. Hardly any book was lost. People called each other by first names – something very new then; there was certain air of irreverence to hierarchy; bosses tolerated healthy dissent; and there was respect for doers. And, people worked like mad – almost possessed. A set of very young people (average age 25) with no prior experience were trying to build a complex set of products which had taken Billions of $s and much longer period of time in the west. The PBX and RAX hit the production lines first. RAX was an instant hit. In many quarters that were skeptical to start with, a grudging admiration set in.

But, in the midst of all these exhilaration of achievement, unsuspected, a big shock was waiting. The irrepressible Indian Politics came in the way as always. All the good things that were happening in C-DOT were possible only with a strong political commitment at the top. Telecom was not considered as strategic as Nuclear, Space or Defense technologies. India was a large and growing market. MNC vendors across the world were eager to sell to this market – but at a stiff price. In that process, they were denying India a chance to build its own industry. It is not uncommon that global businesses sometimes use dubious means to gain access to a large market. Fortunately, Rajiv Gandhi provided the kind of commitment and support that was needed for an Indian technology alternative – thanks to Sam Pitroda.

The great Indian political game

When Rajiv Gandhi lost the elections in 1989, the new coalition government headed by V P Singh took charge and the story took a sharp turn.

The first problem was quick in surfacing: as soon as assuming office, Mr Unni Krishnan representing Cong (O), the new minister in charge of Communications, had a brush with Sam Pitroda and announced a 13-member committee to “investigate” into the performance of C-DOT and decide on its future. Majority of the members of the committee appeared handpicked and were hostile to Sam Pitroda and C-DOT. The mood was unfriendly. This was a “project of Rajiv Gandhi”. So it was not a favorite of the new dispensation – at least the new minister.

The bane of this country is lack of continuity in Governance – whatever one political party does – whether it was right or wrong – is always opposed by the next Govt. Look at the way successive governments undo/criticize what the previous Govt. did. The Public Private Participation program in Bangalore, BALCO, Economic lIberalisation, India – US accord…..it is a long list. Arun Shourie suggests a simple rule of self-denial among political parties would help: ‘‘Do not block another party from doing what your own party does when it is in power.’’ But that is easier said than done.

I had my second shock when Mr K B Lal, my immediate boss, came out of a “grilling” by the Govt.’s now-feared 13 member committee. He was quite upset. I know him very close as a conscientious engineer-manager. He felt humiliated. “They were unreasonable”, he said “they wouldn’t listen. They kept accusing we have done nothing and we have cheated the nation. Some of them simply without basis, kept insisting that our architecture was flawed and will never work as a large switch”. He felt we were being treated like criminals and cheats with no valid reason.

Was CDOT going to collapse? It will be very difficult to retain all the talent C-DOT had nurtured if the Govt. succeeds in what it apparently wanted to do – “fix” CDOT for being a Rajiv Gandhi idea. Many at CDOT were confused. They are being pilloried while doing a great job. With what they had achieved till then, everyone can easily get great jobs anywhere in the world. It will be very difficult to put together such a team again. I was very worried. I was a middle level manager and part of the core team. I had a dedicated team – some of the brightest engineers of their times from IITs, BITS, RECs and many other good engineering schools across the country. We had motivated our teams, driven them hard, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed all the hard work and challenge- because it was for a national cause. Will all that go waste?

I felt the “system” wanted us to “behave”. CDOT was quite inconvenient at least for some powerful quarters. Back in ’84, very few believed we as a nation can do any serious R&D. Import was the only solution. Technology for the industry always came through “technology transfers” from foreign partners. A few multinationals were allegedly very active to kill C-DOT. And the change in Govt. probably gave them a great opportunity to change the rules of the game.

I called up Sam. He and I had struck a good chord from the beginning. I was responsible for Fault Tolerance – called the Maintenance subsystem – and that was considered an important area. Every time he met me on the corridors of C-DOT or in a review meeting, he would just implore me “What you are doing is critical. I am counting on you.” I knew he must have told the same line to so many others too, but I felt so charged up, and I would always assure him, “Don’t worry Sam, we will deliver!” Now, are we going to fail for a non technology reason? He called me to his home in the evening. Mr Meemamsi, the founder director of C-DOT and Mr K.B.Lal were also there. The discussion confirmed that the new Govt. was wanting to nail C-DOT down for “non performance” and let Sam leave in disgrace. It was a witch hunt against CDOT. It was obviously a political problem – not technical. The only way out was for us was to try and convince the political system while we continue to do everything to convince the obviously biased review committee. “Let us change the political opinion in the country!” – Sam said. It was decided, all of us will do it in whatever means available to each of us.

Easier said than done!

In the corridors of power

Sam had a great rapport with many politicians and journalists. Technocrats and the IAS too liked him. But with the changed political scenario, with the impression that he was too close to Rajiv Gandhi, he now had a disadvantage. I have never met face to face any serious politician before in my life. My home town was represented by a congress MP. That is not going to help now. The new Govt. was a coalition between Janata Dal led by VP Singh, the BJP and the Left. Suddenly I realized I knew somebody. There was a bright engineer, the daughter of a well-known BJP MP, in our RTOS team. I spoke to her and in the next 15 minutes I had a meeting fixed with Mr L K Advani, the president of BJP. It was stroke of luck! I was going to meet the president of the biggest political party supporting the Govt.

I landed up in Mr. Advani’s house at the appointed time. It was scheduled to be a 20 minute meeting. But, it took about an Hour. I did most of the talking. Mr. Advani listened patiently. After the first 10 minutes of my explaining what good things we had done as an organization and why we felt we were being hunted down, his first reaction in his measured voice was “your boss Mr Pitroda identified himself too close to Rajiv Gandhi. So, this was bound to happen!” But, I was prepared for this question. “Sir,” I said, “We all expected that the new Govt. will request Mr Pitroda to resign. It is a prerogative of any Govt. to have a team on which it had maximum confidence. But, here instead, an institution which had done a good job was being pilloried apparently to get at him. We are weak as a nation in building world-class products. Companies always went to the west for “technology transfer” at a great cost. Here is a project that has started delivering complex Indian technology. And some bright young engineers are sticking to India in this project instead of rushing out to the US.” I went on and on…. By now, I was very emotional and had tears in my eyes.

Mr Advani was very gentle, kept encouraging me to continue, I was pleading, accusing the political system, arguing for Indian technology to be built…all at the same time. I kept urging him to do something. At the end of it all, he said, “Don’t worry, I understand. We will support C-DOT. We will not let the good work done so far to go waste. I meet the Prime Minister every Thursday, I will advice him to go careful on C-DOT.” He asked me to continue to be in touch with Mr.Jaswant Singh. When I stepped out, I couldn’t believe myself. I had managed to convince the most powerful politician in the country at that time. I came in with so much anger against politicians. Now, this man has “truly listened” to me. My respect for him went up hugely.

By morning, I received a call from Sam. He had been called by the BJP top brass asking him to give them a presentation at the earliest on what is happening at C-DOT and was promised full support. Sam said, “Venkat, whatever you did, just keep doing!” Mr Meemamsi, the Exec Director too was very pleased. Encouraged by all this, I along with a few other colleagues in C-DOT, formed an informal lobbying group. We went on a carpet-bombing mission on the political establishment in Delhi. People we met included, Jaswant Singh, Jaipal Reddy, Devilal, Arjun Singh, Prof. Madhu Dandavate, Mohan Kumaramangalam, Somnath Chatterjee, President Venkatraman’s office, Rajiv Gandhi…the list was long. Rajiv told us “You guys are doing a great job. Think beyond politics, you must continue your mission.” Meeting him in person, I found Rajiv to be a genuine person. I liked the guy. Everyone including Rajiv felt Sam stepping down would undermine C-DOT completely. We also met most members of the 13-member committee. Many of them were handpicked for their hostility to C-DOT and Sam. There were still a few fair people in the committee to whom we could appeal. They gave us rock solid support – especially Dr R P Shenoy and V M Sundaram. The minister in the meanwhile was getting impatient with all these lobbying. He sacked Mr. Meemamsi and Mr. Mahajan – the C-DOT top management. The review committee split into two – one led by Mr Nambiar said C-DOT was a big failure and its products were seriously flawed while the other group said C-DOT was a great success deserving all the support. We tried desperately reaching the PMO for a meeting with Mr. V P Singh. He wouldn’t meet us. But, I somehow felt that even he was convinced about C-DOT but wanted to handle it in his own way because of the pressures of coalition politics.

Thanks to all the lobbying and other opposition, the telecom minister softened his stand on C-DOT. Now he suddenly claimed that C-DOT had a great team of engineers and an excellent potential. “But they were misled” he said. And he started a personal attack on Sam. It was claimed “the exchequer had been looted” It was alluded Sam had been siphoning off funds. It was the most outrageous and ridiculous charge. I was amazed at the depth to which politics could go. Sam was defenseless. He didn’t know how to defend himself against such a crazy charge.

The Fourth Estate steps in

An important political leader from the ruling dispensation advised us that there is an impasse because of the coalition politics. Only the press and public opinion can help us now at this stage. Now there was a debate. Some asked, whose war are we fighting? C-DOT’s or Mr.Pitroda’s? Most of us of felt it doesn’t make a difference. There is no truth in the allegation; And we must call the bluff.

We made a senior Indian Express journalist talk to a top Finance official in the Govt. working right under the minister – the very person who was asked to conduct a detailed audit on C-DOT accounts. The official came out categorically, “I saw some rules being violated by C-DOT to expedite purchases, but I never saw any malafied intention or a paise misused.” Indian Express wrote a story quoting him.

Meeting Arun Shourie at the Indian Express office was the most refreshing thing. The clarity of his thinking was striking. He made a comment at the peak of the C-DOT controversy; “We as a nation are not very successful in building strong institutions. We just want to build heroes and destroy them when not required.” He put one of his senior journalists then, Ms Pushpa Girimaji to work with us on the story. She wrote some brilliant articles on India Express. We went all out with the fourth estate.

Now suddenly my family started getting threatening calls from someone claiming to be from CBI, the secret police of the Govt.of India, accusing me of working against the Govt and warning of dire consequences. Honestly I was a bit rattled. We spoke to Arun Shourie again. He gave me a lot of courage. He did some quick checks and came back and said it is unlikely to be anyone from CBI. And, if anything like that happens to me, he will blast the Govt. He was credited to be a key player in having brought the new Govt. to power. I felt confident and personally realized the true power of the press in a democracy.

We went and met Prof. Indiresan at IIT, Delhi – a respected academician and former dean of IIT, Madras. I have never met a clear headed academician like Prof. Indiresan. He helped organize a symposium of top technocrats from all over the country at IIT Delhi. The experts heard the different views and concluded that C-DOT’s technology was viable and passed a stinging resolution castigating the Govt. asking it to stop harassing technocrats and stop the witch-hunt. They sent out a strong communication to the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. Now almost every newspaper was criticizing the Govt. The press support was very strong. Thirteen editorials were published in the national press all condemning Govt.’s handling of C-DOT, asking the minister and Govt. to stop the witch hunt.

…We shall overcome – and we did..

And, by the next week, the cabinet was reshuffled. While the Telecom Minister was refusing to give up his communications portfolio, the responsibility changed hand and an affable new minister came in the form of Gyaneshwar Mishra, who immediately declared a truce. All of us were relieved. For six months, we had been lobbying with politicians and press. It seemed to have made a significant impact and brought about the change. But, of course Sam had a lot of good will among journalists, the IAS, young technocrats and some politicians. And Mr Meemamsi had a very clean reputation.

At the end of it, in a poignant moment, in Room 919, Akbar Bhavan, Sam Pitroda broke down and was emotional like a child – the man I admired most, who had shown a lot of courage and refused to give up was letting out his emotions at a moment of relief. He said, “you have no idea what you guys have done”. I said, “Sam you have no idea what you have done to all of us.” Not long after, he suffered a huge heart attack. But, he would not go to the US for treatment – against the advice of many and got admitted and operated in Delhi for a bypass surgery. A person who could have easily joined the Billion $ league had he continued in the US, a person who came back to contribute to India, a man who worked at a salary of Re 1 a year for nearly a decade for the Indian Govt. and made a huge impact on Indian Telecom, the system presented in return a heart attack. It was very sad indeed. But still he stuck around, insisted that we too stay around long enough to see through the design and manufacture of the switching products and get the job completed.

By the end of ’92, I left C-DOT. The large switch had been succesfully installed, tested and manufactured. I was heading the switching software team, the largest division then. It was a very sad moment for me to leave. But, by then, I felt C-DoT had done its job. Its relevance was over. With the just announced liberalization, it was clear that it was out there in the entrepreneurial world where huge opportunities were waiting – where one can contribute more meaningfully. Among all the people we met during the campaign, Prof Madhu Dandavate, the then Finance minister of India brought a new perspective. While we pleaded with him with emotion and anger for C-DOT, he said “Please realize! It is time you stopped expecting the Govt. to do everything. If you care so much for technology in India, go out and build that yourself.” At first, I was very upset when I heard that; but, I soon realized he was very right – time to move on and start building things on your own! The motivation for entrepreneurship became stronger.

In the whole episode, there was great learning. It was a crusade in which a number of people were involved. There was a great sense of power for all those who were part of it. In this country, when things go bad, if you show courage to stand up and be counted, you can fight all the way for a right cause. While it was politics that brought about the problem, I could see a brighter side. Most politicians were ready to listen. None shooed us away. I was not a very politically aligned person. I liked the positive sides of the people I met whether Rajiv Gandhi, Advani or Arun Shourie…. The press listened and supported us to the hilt. If you had a cause, you can fight for it and win and even change a minister in the Govt. of India. Democracy was fully in play. I always remembered one of Sam’s favorite lines: “It is important that you are a good engineer and a great technocrat. But it is far more important that you are a strong human being who will stand up and be counted.” In the whole lobbying bit, I was not alone; there were many who rallied all around – C-DOTians, journalists, academicians, scientists, politicians and others who were all equally committed and contributing. I didn’t list the names for the fear of leaving out any.

Sam Pitroda was a sad man after the death of his friend Rajiv Gandhi. He still stayed on, completed the C-DOT switch deployment as his friend had wanted; and then went back to rebuild his fortunes. He headed WorldTel for a while. Then back at Chicago, he went on to found a new company C-Sam, focusing on electronic valet around Mobile phones. He filed 10 new patents and back to where he started – all over gain. He suffered another stroke and had to undergo a second surgery. He is now forced by friends and family to take it easy. As chairman of Knowledge Commission, he continues his contribution to India.

While Sam was the high profile, public face of C-DOT, there was a strong team of high integrity that constituted the core management team of C-DOT. Mr.G.B.Meemamsi and Dr.M.V.Pitke were the leaders of that core team. And, there was a fabulous team of engineers – some of the brightest of their time.

G.B.Meemamsi continued as an advisor to C-DOT for another decade, trying everything he could to bring dynamism to the organization. He refused to accept cushy foreign postings or MNC jobs. He is now retired and lives with his wife in Bangalore and guides young companies.

Dr Pitke, the third member of the founding triumvirate, an eminent scientist from TIFR, is retired and lives in Mumbai and helps young entrepreneurs.

Many other wonderful people who were part of C-DOT then are successful and are everywhere now – all over the world, as senior executives in many technology companies, or as entrepreneurs. This whole group will agree on one thing – the time they spent in the early years of C-DOT was the most exciting and rewarding years of their life!

CDOT: What happened to CDOT? At the end of the controversy in ’89, C-DOT lost most of its technology team. Most left disgusted and joined design services companies; many left for the US to find their fortunes. Sadly that destroyed one of the greatest new core competencies that was built in India in recent times. A few stayed back and completed the last pieces of work that remained, saw the products manufactured fully and then moved on. Very few from the core team continued to work with C-DOT. Core competencies are around people. If you lose the complete team over a short span of time, it is nearly impossible to rebuild to a comparable level unless another super human effort is made.


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