Sharing interesting nuggets from my life as a tech journalist at a time when Indian media hardly covered IT in any form and peculiarities from that era. (Part 1)
I had completed my MBA from Aligarh Muslim University a year earlier, and then tried my hand at a fish farming startup venture with a few MBA class fellows. The venture failed miserably. In our MBA program, we had studied all the popular subjects under management subjects—marketing, HR, finance, advertising, sales, production, etc—but it wasn’t enough. In fish farming, for which we had taken a huge 250-acre pond in the middle of western Uttar Pradesh’s nowhere, “muscle power” management skills and street smartness were probably the most important requirements.
“Enough is enough, fish farming is for goondas. You get out of it right now, and get yourself a decent job,” my father, a university professor, thundered one day. Next morning, I was on the train to Delhi, to get a “decent” job.
Q1: Name five international computer companies: It was November 1989, and I was sitting in D-74 Panchsheel Enclave, the New Delhi basement office of CyberMedia, waiting my turn for a job interview. After a little wait, a young man entered the small room. “I am Dr Srinivasan, and I head IDC (International Data Corporation), a world leader in tech market research,” he introduced himself. I had no clue about anything, so I just nodded my head. A friend of mine had got me here. Anyway, as Doc (that is how Dr Srinivasan was called in the organisation, I later came to know) started questioning me on my skills in developing a questionnaire and getting it filled, I realised that this interrogation was for a market research executive job. Just then a young lady walked into the room and whispered something in Doc’s ear, and he stopped asking questions. “I guess you are here for a reporter’s job interview,” he informed me, appearing to be confused himself. However, in a minute the lady appeared again. “No Sir, sorry Sir, you may continue. He is here for a market research executive’s interview,” she said, a little embarrassed. My interview resumed. After a few more questions, I was handed a question paper. I had cleared Round One, I proudly thought. The first question on the sheet was “Name 5 international hardware companies”. My heart sank, as the only two names of international computer companies I had heard of were Apple and IBM. I had no clue where to get three more names from. Then I saw a packaging box on the shelf in the room, with Microsoft written on it. But I did not know if Microsoft was an international or an Indian company. I decided to put just two names there—IBM and Apple. The second question was “Name 5 Indian computer companies”. This was yet another googly, and the only two Indian computer companies I knew of were Hindustan Computers Ltd (HCL), and Wipro. I then suddenly remembered that a computer company Pertech Computers Ltd (later PCL) had come to our college for campus placement. I now had three Indian names, hence decided to put Microsoft under the international company category. Believe it or not, I was selected.
But now I knew that CyberMedia had interest in media as well as market research. I had no great writing skills, zero experience in journalism, but one of my dreams was to become a journalist. Khushwant Singh, Kuldeep Nayar and MJ Akbar were my models, sort of. Though I joined IDC, my heart was in the magazines that CyberMedia used to publish then: Dataquest and PCWorld. In 1989, CyberMedia was a franchisee for publishing PCWorld, a global leader and brand as a magazine about computers. Within a few days I requested that I wanted to get into journalism, and I was transferred to PCWorld.
Just one news item in a week: My father, I think along with some other seniors in the family, was not very happy with my decision to join CyberMedia. They had all hoped that after my MBA, I should have been working for the Tatas or Birlas (this was the most popular jargon in those days to describe large and successful companies of India). They had no idea (and actually in those days not many understood) the potential and role of speciality media. I was under constant pressure to find a better job. I had tasted journalism, and its excitement included meeting the industry honchos, interviewing tech visionaries, attending interesting and very informative conferences, and its frills including the lunches, dinners and gifts. The press sticker on the motorcycle—front and back number plate—made the job even more attractive. Finally, it was agreed that I would find a job in any of the leading business magazines or newspapers of that time. Luckily, a former vice chancellor of my alma mater, who had also been a member of the Planning Commission, was the consulting editor of India’s leading business newspaper. I managed to get an audience with him in his Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg office, through my senior, who told me that the paper is looking for junior reporters. As the meeting started, the first question he asked was if I could cover real estate and especially the cement and building material sector. I was stumped. I was already dreaming of becoming their star IT reporter. I politely told him that I had more than a year’s experience in tech journalism, and I would like to specialise in that sector. “You mean computers?” he asked with scorn. “Yes sir,” I replied, “I am told that is the future.” He seemed affronted by this. “It might be the future, but we need news of today,” he told me with a tone of rebuke. He called the peon and asked him to get the last week’s papers. “Just go through this and tell me how many computer news items are there.” He gave me this five-minute assignment along with a cup of tea. To my utter surprise (I don’t know why) there was just one small news item about IT, that too somewhere in the inside pages. Just one news item in the whole week! “We cannot afford a reporter who will only cover computers. If you are ready to work on other beats, we can evaluate you for selection.” The temptation to work for India’s top financial newspaper was high, but the thought of writing about cement and bricks was not exciting enough. The meeting ended there.
Unlicensed users welcome: I think it was one of my very first assignments, most probably in 1989. I was asked to go and interview the India manager of one of the world’s biggest and most popular office productivity tools’ software vendors. The problem was that shopkeepers in Nehru Place (the hardware, software and peripherals capital of India), were constantly complaining that their sales of this office productivity tools’ software (remember, those days all software came on floppy disks packed in nice boxes) was not picking up. They claimed that peddlers on the courtyards and bylanes of Nehru Place were openly selling copied (like photocopied novels) and unlicensed floppies of this software at a throwaway price. Neither the police nor the genuine original vendors were taking any interest in this. When I called the India manager, he was not ready to meet me. When I told him that the report would go without his side of the story, he reluctantly agreed. He called me to his office in the evening in a posh South Delhi neighbourhood, (which I think was also his home). The man was a bit tipsy, but he poured his heart out. His main message: I am fed up facing my dealers and distributors, but I have a very clear, though unstated, order from my boss, to not touch these copied and unlicensed software sellers. “We want more and more people to use our software, we really don’t care whether it’s legal or illegal.” I just could not believe it.
When I published the report, he must have got a solid firing from his boss. He was furious when he called me. “Why did you not tell me you are a reporter,” he yelled. “I thought you were a Nehru Place shopkeeper.” I was amused but not surprised. “I did tell you sir, and even presented my press card,” I told him politely. I am sure, after this he must have given up his drinking habit during office hours after that.
I don’t know how this man who did not know how to use a PC lead an IT company. But he was in charge for several years, so I guess he must have done a good job. I am sure there could have been many more such CEOs of leading IT companies.
The honest CEO: What I’m writing next might seem strange and unbelievable, but in 1992, that’s the way things were. I was asked by my editor to interview the CEO of a leading dot matrix printer company that was in the news for launching a range of printers in quick succession. If I remember right, they were distributors of some Japanese printer brands then. I was a little late for the meeting, but the CEO patiently waited. I had been instructed to ask him a few personal questions, especially about technology. So once the main interview was over, I quickly asked him, “Sir, which is your favourite computer company?” Pat came his reply: IBM. “So, you use an IBM PC, even though I mostly see Wipro PCs in your office!” After a pause, he said, “Yes, I use an IBM PC.” Then he paused again, his face expression changed, and he added, “No I don’t use IBM.”
“Which PC do you use then?” He replied, “I don’t use a PC. I don’t need a PC for my work.” I knew he was hiding something. I asked my final question, “Sir, do you even know how to use a PC? Have you ever worked on a PC?” “Frankly speaking I don’t know how to use a PC,” he admitted rather sheepishly. I did not show him my surprise. I gulped down my filter coffee and left. I don’t know how this man who did not know how to use a PC lead an IT company. But he was in charge for several years, so I guess he must have done a good job. I uncovered this accidentally, but I am sure there could have been many more such CEOs of leading IT companies.
Out of your mind: Overseas media trips were the most sought after. In my time, the US was one attractive destination. Junkets, as they were popularly called, had their own experiences. Often embarrassing, often funny, often painful. Of all the junkets I had the privilege of travelling for, the most hilarious was with a journalist friend working for India’s largest selling business newspaper, who unfortunately is no longer in this world. “Ibrahim, I heard that you are also coming for the HP junket next month in San Francisco,” he shouted over the phone one day. I said yes, not sure whether to be happy or sad. A nice guy, but this fellow was known to be a habitual embarrassment. Journalists used to be pampered in those days and we were travelling business class. As soon as the flight took off, he started gulping down one drink after another. Soon he was someone else. When an air hostess arrived with a tray of white soft perfumed neatly rolled napkins for passengers to freshen up, he grabbed two and exclaimed delightfully, “Wow, they are serving ‘malai rolls’ here!” Before I could stop him, he had taken a deep bite. He changed the side thinking they were wrapped in paper and took another bite. The air hostess and passengers were shocked, but they just smiled.
Once at the venue, the organisers had set up media booths giving access to fax and phone (there was no internet or mobile phone then) to file news and reports for respective publications. By afternoon every day, our friend got tipsy, and would take over a media booth and for hours talk to friends and family back home. The upset organisers disconnected the wires, but he refused to come out of the booth. I peeped in and saw him half inside the chair, half outside, loudly scolding someone on the other end, despite the disconnected lines. Our friend was too tipsy to have realised that the phone was dead. With the help of the conference staff, we somehow managed to get him to the bus, and transport him back to his room. There were only two journalists from India on that trip, so it was impossible to pretend that I didn’t know him. Later when I narrated these incidents to him, he said, “Are you out of your mind, and expect me to believe your fancy stories?” How’s that for total denial?
To be continued.
(Ibrahim spent around 30 years in CyberMedia. After being the Editor of Dataquest, he was the Group Editor for all publications.)