Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Hemant Sonawala, Pioneering Entrepreneur in Computing

Hemant Sonawala had returned to India in the early sixties after doing a Master’s in the US. His first job here was that of a CSIR Fellow at the IIT, Bombay. So, it was no wonder that he started hi-tech business activities in India, dealing with Texas Instruments and with the Digital Equipment Corporation. His technical knowledge combined with business acumen took him to pioneering heights of the Indian computer industry. Hundreds of Indian professionals in the field got their experience by working in enterprises started by him, starting with Hinditron. Many of them are now leaders of the profession. Hemant’s contributions to creating the Digital Equipment (India) Ltd. were very important to the growth of the Indian software and services industry. His leadership has been very valuable to the Computer Society of India.

I had the great pleasure of working with him and Dr P P Gupta in planning and running India’s first international conference in the computer field – Networks 80. We recognized that computer networks is a technology with significant socio-economic value and felt that its potential had to be demonstrated – Mr Hemant Sonawala agreed to be Exhibitions Chair. Ambitious plans were made. In one of the brainstorming sessions held in this context, the three of us cooked up a proposal to have a multi-city demo of a futuristic railway passenger ticket reservation system. This was selected as an application which, over the years, could make a contribution to the quality of life of millions of people. Sonawala offered to lend a mini-computer from Digital Equipment Corporation, and the National Centre for Software Development and Computing Techniques (NCSDCT) offered to design and implement the demo. Mr P Sadanandan was then Head of the Database Group at NCSDCT. The team under his leadership took on this responsibility. Sonawala and I went off to meet the Railway Board Chairman to request Railway’s cooperation and participation in the conference. He agreed readily. The Posts and Telegraph Dept. agreed to provide data-connectivity over leased lines between Ahmedabad, Bombay and Delhi. The project went on well and we got more or less ready to demo the three-city system.

But unfortunately, the Railway Board Chairman who had been enthusiastic about the project reached his retirement date, and we got derailed! The new officers we met had their own priority – movement of something like 400 million tons a year of freight. One of them made a memorable comment which illustrated the value people placed on the customers’ convenience as a justification for computerization. “Have you seen a railway seat go empty?” he asked. “If A does not go, some B will go; we have been asked by the Govt to focus on freight capacity utilization”.  The demo was given at the conference anyway, though on a reduced scale. A number of Railway officers took interest in the subject and a paper was presented at the conference by Mr H. S. Srinivas Prasad. Hemant had, as usual, contributed to the important first step of a major project by his teamwork and by encouraging & supporting the other team members.

Dr Gupta’s enduring enthusiasm for this mass application was to make the Reservations System a reality through the energy of his CMC Colleagues a few years later. He made a presentation to the Railway Minister on the concept and CMC won an order to implement a reservation system for the Northern Railway as a first step. The good thing about our democracy is that it is enough if you do some good in one of the four regions. The representatives of the people will ensure that all four corners are soon given the same facilities soon! A CMC team, working out of their R & D Labs in Hyderabad, did an impressive job of designing and implementing the system and had covered all four regions of India within a few years.

The great success of the Railway Passenger Reservation System made everyone understand the benefits of computerization coupled with computer networking. Those who had been skeptical about banking applications changed their minds. You have seen what bank computerization and networking did for India in the decades that followed.

One of the results of Networks 80 was that we became confident conference organizers, ever willing to take on another big conference. I think it was the CSI Annual Convention in 1987 in Mumbai. Sonawala was the Organizing Chair and I was Program Chair. The two big hotels in Bombay at that time were not big enough to hold the Convention. Sonawala suggested that we put up a huge geodesic dome in the oval maidan! This temporary facility was in addition to renting space at the two big hotels, because everything could not be fitted under the dome! Sonawala cheerfully went ahead with his plan and delivered the goods!  The audience was well over 1,000 in several sessions.

In addition to being a very good professional and businessman, Hemant was a great human being. Despite his heavy workload, he always found time for professional and social service activities. His work through the Computer Society of India (CSI) and his social service activities through the Lions are well-known. His work, in collaboration with Prof PVS Rao and the CSI to train visually challenged youngsters in computing is legendary.

No article about Hemant can be complete without a reference to his jokes! He always came prepared for giving any talk; this included choosing a joke about some blond or brunette. Then he would pick on a friend in the first row, say Prof Mahabala or Prof PVS Rao, and modify the joke to fit him in! Everyone would have a good laugh!

Hemant's passing away is a great loss to every one of us who has worked with him. We have individually benefited a lot from the inspiration and encouragement he gave us in our endeavors. I will always remember him as a cheerful, enthusiastic and supportive colleague and friend. 

Hundreds of Hemant's colleagues like me share the grief of the family - Hemant’s wife Rekha, son Saurabh and daughter Paula.

Srinivasan Ramani

P. S.
1) Mr Sonawala passed away on Saturday, May 30, 2015.
2) I have included in this article a few paragraphs that I have published earlier, because they are relevant here in the context of Hemant’s work.


Srinivasan Ramani said...

Mr Anand Parthasarathy, veteran journalist in the IT field, has an interesting post on his website on Mr Hemant Sonawala


Srinivasan Ramani

dvr said...

Yours blog says it well. Hemanth never appeared tense despit many pressures. His contributions indeed are many for CSI and the IT business scenario. His son Saurabh is doing the honors of good business and contributions to professional societies.

CSI threads contained condolences on Sh Hemanth's demise. I was waiting for yours.
It has come through IEEE. I am yet to see Prof PVS Rao's.

Unknown said...

I knew mr. Sonawala since 1990 when i worked with aerotek, a small thai company wished to expand our business to india. Mr. Sonawala visited our office once that i remebered, we had a very good conversation , i still remeber his sense of humor and kindness to a new graduate engineering student who started as a novice in a newly settled company like me. It was almost 24 years until today i just learnt that he has passed away. My condolence to his friends and family. May he rest in peace. Manit