Bengaluru lost one of its pioneering entrepreneurs who heralded the chips and bytes of technology into India a little over two months ago with the demise of V.K. Harindran, co-founder of Processor Systems India (PSI).
My earliest memories of Hari, as he was known, are from a drive in his Fiat car on my first day on the job, to a project site where PSI’s digital systems were being embedded into behemoth analogue telephone exchange. Hari explained how they were enabling Indian Post & Telecommunication (P&T) to recognise dialled digits to measure call duration by embedding new systems into existing telephone exchanges. All the way, we talked about the transformational opportunities of digital communication, a conversation that started me on an exciting, adventurous life with PSI. It was 1977 and barely anyone was talking about hardware design for digital communication. And here I was, amidst folks who imagined microprocessors in every shop, office, factory floor, bank and university of India in the near future. PSI did all that and more.
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It all began with two young engineers, Dr V.K. Ravindran and Vinay Deshpande, who dreamt of building a technology company while studying at Stanford University in the US in the early 1970s. They were convinced that computer technology could create millions of new jobs in India. They returned, and in 1973 roped in their friend Hari to create what is probably one of Bengaluru’s first startups. In the tradition of many Silicon Valley startups, the three friends set up their technology company in a basement in Bengaluru’s Richmond Road, an office they retain to this day.
PSI provided new-age computers to Indian industries, which, until then, used ancient IBM unit record machines. It charted a new beginning for Bengaluru’s Silicon Valley dreams by exporting solutions with integrated hardware and software. It was among the first five global companies to develop a Relational Database Management System (RDBMS) and the first Indian company to start research collaborations with European campuses on voice recognition algorithms.
The company started its export trajectory in niche segments of the emerging global data networks, precursors to the internet of today. PSI grew in the value chain by co-authoring with Japanese industry solutions which could be sold by both parties in their respective territories with shared royalties in the rest of the world. It was the first Indian company to discover and discuss partnerships based on intellectual property.
When PSI delivered a PDP 11 compatible mini-computer system in the 1980s, it was a signature moment for Indian engineers. It was one of the first companies in the world to have used bit slice processors to emulate a commercial computer. PSI launched several business systems to meet the EDP manager demands of India. It connected factories and markets to head offices on phone lines with modems to provide a near real-time view of demand-supply gaps.
Along with the technology, the founders brought a new culture of work. Everyone addressed everyone else by their first name, no honorifics, no titles—it was an unheard-of revolution in the 1970s when India was just emerging from the Emergency.
For me, a lifelong friendship with these patriotic technocrats began with the definite feeling that I, an entry level engineer, was an equal and trusted partner. Every interaction with the founders was inspiring, infusing me with unbelievable awe and enthusiasm for PSI’s mission to put India on the global technology map.
PSI had one of the most committed and talented teams. The challenge of meeting client expectations with digital solutions became a self-fulfilling force multiplier to galvanize engineers. Peer reviews were intensely animated without any attention to symbols of rank and title. Hari wanted us to embrace risk and be bold in delineating new contours for solutions.
The company was acquired by a European multinational in the late 1980s, just after Ravi passed away. By 1991, it was the country’s third largest IT service exporter.
PSI didn’t become a billion-dollar organization; it was probably ahead of its time for that. Nevertheless, its founders’ vision for India has been fulfilled by the continuing growth of IT services and the vibrant startup culture in the country. Almost everyone who worked with PSI remembers it as the best part of their career. Several company alumni, myself included, went on to found startups that have since been acquired by global marquee brands.
Hari remained a quintessential people person driven by a passion for technology. He became an ambassador of culture, co-founding a Japanese restaurant in Bengaluru and creating groups and communities that brought together diverse cultures and nationalities. One of the most recent ideas Hari discussed, while he worked from home, was to embed sports gear with reconfigurable learning capability to enhance the “game time” thrill for the over-40 demographic.
I recall that all the life savings of Hari’s parents, who lived in Ernakulam in the 1980s, were held as collateral for the company. There was no venture capital then. The story of PSI will continue to inspire many future generations of Indian entrepreneurs.
An alumnus of IISc Bengaluru, Kalyana Rao worked as part of the founding team at PSI for 15 years, and went on to co-found a fintech startup.