The Story of a Software

“In the blink of an eye you see a twirl

You barely notice that technology is changing the world

Changed values, ideas and desires

New machines, new algorithms, new wires

But what wires you to be so different?”

From the ethereal heights of Mussoorie and the lingering hangover of the haunting train journeys across India, we were grounded in 1977 after a year of institutionalised training. My first on-the-job training was at the Telephone Billing section at East Fort Trivandrum. The training schedule was at my will and pleasure. Mostly I was sleeping over at the guesthouse, conveniently labelled as Inspection Quarters to avoid some audit objection, and Parameswaran, the Accounts Officer was very accommodating.

Whenever I went to his office I found it disgusting with a horde of sweaty clerks sitting in rows and writing in oversized ledgers with old records heaped beside almost everyone. Billing reforms were still a far cry. There was a Bradma machine for bill printing in one of the rooms there, which was then considered a very sophisticated equipment. I still remember the Bradma operator of Trivandrum Telephones who had the air of a rocket scientist. Most of the other Telephone Divisions were still writing out the Telephone bills on pre-printed bill books with carbon paper for a duplicate office copy. But things became too difficult to handle. Fast replacement of manual exchanges by semi-automatic and automatic exchanges, group dialling, STDPCOs, Operator assisted trunk dialling, STD/ISD services, introduction of digital exchanges and the revolutionary CDOT RAXs made it impossible for the billing department to keep pace. Delay in billing resulted in delay in collection and being a sleepy government department nobody seems to have had much concerns.

Already I had some exposure to the early computerised systems at ITI Bangalore during the probation days. The IBM 370-165 mainframe Computer at ITI was indeed a wonder in itself. This was imported from the US, even where computers were in their infancy. The big hall that housed it was air-conditioned, a rare privilege even to the top brass in civil service. The engineers in charge wore neckties, the whole place was spick and span and your footwear was to be removed before entering the holy place. Its one million bytes memory (1MB) with some 600000 bytes (.6MB) RAM appeared virtually unlimited. The storage capacity made it possible to run multiple programs at the same time. Once computing processes had been completed, the data was backed up using magnetic tape or discs and stored in a fireproof archive. What is more, the mainframe computer was capable of adding two six-digit numbers at the “fantastic speed” of 160 nanoseconds. Today all these look silly with nearly every Smartphone providing hundred thousand times that capacity. Till date I am not sure as to what exactly was the application to which this giant was put to use – may be for something as silly as salary bill or sales invoices.

In 1983 I was posted as Director (Finance) at Madras Telephones. There was no computer there either; the most sophisticated machine was the old rickety lift in the Oriental Building at 47, Armenian Street, a colonial relic housing the Telephone Revenue sections. But we had an arrangement with Binny & Co, one of the oldest business houses in Chennai who owned an IBM Main Frame computer. Madras Telephones could use their computer on a time sharing basis. There was a whole section in my office where ladies sitting in rows used to punch data from trunk call tickets and meter reading information in to flexible cards using punching machines, to be read and computed later at Binny’s. Livingstone, the “know all” Accounts Officer was the key person, refusing to part with his expertise and leaving no hint for any succession planning. Looking back at the process of physically carrying the trunk call tickets and meter readings from the exchanges, then keying them into cards in another office and again physically carrying the punched cards to the Computer Centre of Binny – all looked too tedious. But still it was something to be talked about in friends’ circles.

In the meantime P&T got bifurcated and Telecom Commission was set up in 1989. From Madras Telephones I was transferred to Kerala as Director (Finance). Meanwhile I got some training on Lotus, Basic, Fortran and a glimpse of Cobol and I had seen more sophisticated telephone Billing systems like those of Nortel and Bell Canada – all thanks to the vision of Government of India. I was enamoured by the immense possibilities of computers and their applications.

In 1990 there was serious thinking at our Circle headquarters on billing computerisation and Delhi too gave full mandate for us to go ahead. Hardware experts from ISRO and Keltron were roped in. Specifications were drawn up and something called “mini’ computer, half way between a desktop PC and a Mainframe, was found to be the optimal choice. Tender was floated for a turnkey solution with hardware and ready to use billing software ported on the system. Those were days when desktop PCs were just emerging, Laptops were not even heard of and call data records at exchange level were something unimaginable. About 12 vendors participated in the tender and finally Wipro and Transmatics were shortlisted. We decided to award the work to both of them, two different geographical locations for these two vendors and then decide the best one for implementation in the rest of the districts. Wipro was given the work of billing computerisation at Trivandrum and Transmatics at Trichur. Both of them were competing to complete the work successfully at the earliest and both did a good job.

Business model of Transmatics was different from Wipro’s. While Wipro supplied the hardware and their own engineers developed the application software, Transmatics subcontracted the software development to a young software expert on leave from Keltron. Costing was also something that will look strange now. Hardware accounted for more than 90% of the cost while only a fraction was set apart for software. At both the places the real challenges lay elsewhere – dealing with the staff and the trade unions, allaying their fears and managing the transition. Manual records were to be digitilised and keying in the data to create the subscriber master was a herculean task. Hitherto rebellious Trade Unions were cooperative by then and the leaders took it on themselves to make the mission a great success. Though there were audit paras and vigilance enquiries we could convincingly meet all those with confidence. Nothing succeeds like success.

On final evaluation of both Wipro’s and Transmatics’, the application developed by Mr.Nandakumar, the brilliant subcontractor of Transmatics, proved to be more user-friendly and professional. Department of Telecommunications, Government of India decided to implement this “Trichur Package” across the country. But bigger surprises were in store. Mobile revolution, CDR based billing and comprehensive ERP solutions took over. Technology was always far ahead of our planning and changes were cascading in one after other. But Trichur package served its purpose at a time when the Department was groping in the dark. There were many officers who tirelessly worked for the successful development and implementation of Trichur package. But the star was Nandakumar who always came up with solutions for everything we sought for.

Our story ends here, but his story, the story of a middle level employee of Keltron on leave, investing his expertise and experience gained with us, to become the owner of a business house with more than 130 clients in 45+ countries continues. Many may not be aware that the saga of Sun Tec Business Solutions world’s leading relationship-based pricing and billing company started in the Telephone Billing section of Trichur Telephones. .

Nandakumar explaining the features of Trichur package
Inauguration of Trichur Package at Trichur. Addressing the audience. CGM Shri Karunakaran and GM Trichur Shri Raghavan and Shri Gopalakrishnan can be seen in the picture
Releasing the First Bill at Trichur by Shri Karunakaran, then CGM

Audience at Trichur. Stalwarts like the Gopalakrishnans, M. K Nair are in the front row. Nandakumar , Ravindran, MD of Transmatics and Mohandas (Transmatics) in the second row.
With Shri. SKN Nair, Member, Telecom Commission who came to release the first bill at Trivandrum

Explaining to the Member Telecom Commission. Shri Karunakaran CGM, Shri Nagarajan, GM Trivandrum , Shri Srikantan Nair and Shri Gopinathan Nair are also in the picture.

Releasing the first bill of Kottayam SSA along with Shri Rustom Ali, CGM
Inaugurating the Computer Centre at Kottayam. Shri S R Pillai,GM Kottayam and Shri MK Nair and Gopalakrishnan are in the picture
Inaugurating the online cash counter at Kollam by Smt.Sadhna Dixit, DDG Telecom, Ministry of Communications, my batch mate. Shri. Radhakrishnan DGM Kollam and Shri Gopinathan Nair are also in the picture.

Author: Mathew George

Another slipshod writer under the Sun

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