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Top 10 SQL Window Functions Interview Questions

Many interesting job positions require SQL skills – and that includes window functions, which are not commonly taught in online courses. In this article, I will cover the top window function questions for every experience level.

If you’re going for a job interview for an advanced SQL position or for intermediate to advanced data analyst positions, you’ll probably be asked about your knowledge of SQL window functions. Don’t panic! Although these functions aren’t commonly covered in online courses, we’ve got the answers right here.

Common Job Interview Questions About SQL Window Functions

The idea of this article is to help you prepare for questions on different window functions subtopics. We cannot give you the exact question you will receive, but we can be fairly certain about the topics to which the questions will point.

In some cases, the question can be very open, leaving the decision about what window function subtopic to cover entirely to you. In this case, you should know the relative importance of each subtopic. For starters, you should be prepared for an open question like:

1. What Is a Window Function in SQL?

Window functions are SQL functions that operate on a set of records called the “window” or the “window frame”. The “window”  is a set of rows that are somehow related to the row currently being processed by the query (e.g. all rows before the current row, 5 rows before the current row, or 3 rows after the current row).

Window functions are similar to aggregate functions in that they compute statistics for a group of rows. However, window functions do not collapse rows; they keep the details of individual rows.

Window functions can be organized into the following four categories: aggregate functions, ranking functions, analytic functions, and distribution functions.

Aggregate functions are those that you use with GROUP BY. This includes:

  • COUNT() counts the number of rows within the window.
  • AVG() calculates the average value for a given column for all the records in the window.
  • MAX() obtains the maximum value of a column for all the records in the window.
  • SUM() returns the sum of all values in a given column within the window.

In the ranking category:

  • ROW_NUMBER() returns the position of the row in the result set.
  • RANK() ranks rows based on a given value. When two rows are in the same position, it awards them the same rank and leaves the next position empty (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 3, 5...).
  • DENSE_RANK() also ranks rows by a given value, but it does not leave the next position empty (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5...).

For detailed information, see this article about ranking functions.

In the analytic category, the functions LEAD(), LAG() or FIRST_VALUE() allow us to obtain data from other rows in the same window. LEAD() returns values from rows below of the current row; LAG() from rows above the current row. For more details, see  our article on LEAD vs LAG.

Finally, in the distribution category there are functions like PERCENT_RANK() and CUME_DIST() that can obtain percentile rankings or cumulative distributions. Check out our Window Functions course for step-by-step instructions on how to use these functions.

Here’s an example query with window functions:

SELECT
    employee_name,
    department_name,
    salary,
    RANK() OVER (PARTITION BY department ORDER BY salary) position 
FROM employee

In this query, the window function RANK() is used to rank employees by salary. Later in this article, we’ll discuss the syntax of the OVER() clause and the PARTITION BY and ORDER BY sub-clauses in detail. For now, we’ll only say that they are used to define which records make up the window frame.

Entry-Level Window Function Questions

2. What Is the Syntax of the OVER () Clause ?

The OVER() clause is used to define which rows will be in the window frame. The following sub-clauses can be present in the OVER() clause:

  • PARTITION BY defines the partition, or the groups of rows within the window frame, that the window function will use to create a result. (This will be explained below.)
  • ORDER BY defines the order of the rows in the window frame.
  • ROWS/RANGE define the upper and lower limits of the window frame.

All subclauses of OVER() are optional and can be omitted. In that case, functions will be performed on the entire window frame.

The following SQL shows the OVER() clause at work:

SELECT
first_name,
last_name,
department, 
salary,
AVG(salary) OVER (PARTITION BY department) 
FROM employee

For each employee, the query returns their first name, last name, their salary, and the average salary in their department. The clause OVER (PARTITION BY department) creates a window of rows for each value in the department column. All the rows with the same value in the department column will belong to the same window. The AVG() function is applied to the window: the query computes the average salary in the given department.

The article What Is the OVER Clause? has a complete explanation of the OVER clause.

3. Describe the Difference Between Window Functions and Aggregate Functions.

The main difference between window functions and aggregate functions is that aggregate functions group multiple rows into a single result row; all the individual rows in the group are collapsed and their individual data is not shown. On the other hand, window functions produce a result for each individual row. This result is usually shown as a new column value in every row within the window.

The collapse of rows is an important feature of aggregate functions. For example, we cannot solve the problem “Return all the employees with their salary and the maximum salary in their department” with aggregate functions due to the collapse limitation.

On the similarity side, both aggregate and window functions perform an aggregate-like operation on a set of rows. Some functions like AVG(), MAX(), MIN(), and SUM() can be used as both aggregate and window functions. However, when we need the result of these functions combined with row-level data, it is better to use a window function instead of an aggregate function.

We’ll show two SQL queries that return the department name and the max salary of each department. In the first example, we will use MAX() as an aggregate function:

SELECT   department_name,
         MAX(salary) AS max_salary
FROM     employee
GROUP BY department_name

Below, we can see the result of the previous query. Notice that there is one record per department due to the collapsing effect of the GROUP BY clause:

department_namemax_salary
Accounting93000
Sales134000
Human Resources78000

In the next example, we’ll obtain a similar but slightly different result by using MAX() as a window function:

SELECT employee_name, 
       salary,
       department_name,
       MAX(salary) OVER (PARTITION BY department_name) AS max_salary
FROM   employee

As we previously mentioned, window functions do not collapse records. In the following result, we have one row per employee for a total of 5 rows:

employee_namesalarydepartment_namemax_salary
John Doe93000Accounting93000
Jeremy Smith134000Sales134000
Donna Hayes120000Sales134000
Mark Ron78000Human Resources78000
Denis Serge72000Human Resources78000

Note that we added the columns employee_name and salary just by adding their names to the list of columns in the SELECT. We could not add them to the query with GROUP BY because of the collapse limitation.

In the article SQL Window Functions by Explanation, you can find a detailed explanation of the differences between aggregate and window functions.

4. What’s the Difference Between Window Functions and the GROUP BY Clause?

Aggregate functions are frequently used with the GROUP BY clause, which defines the groups of rows where the aggregate function will work. The GROUP BY clause groups individual rows into sets of rows, allowing the execution of aggregate functions like SUM(), AVG() or MAX() on these sets. Any column from the individual rows cannot be part of the result, as we can see in the following SQL query:

SELECT   
   department_name, 
   AVG(salary)      -- AVG is an aggregate function
FROM  employee
GROUP BY department_name

In the above query, we put only one column in the SELECT list: department_name. This is possible because the department_name column appears in the GROUP BY clause. However, we cannot add any additional columns in the SELECT; only columns specified in the GROUP BY are allowed.

The following SQL query is equivalent to the previous one, but it uses window functions instead of GROUP BY:

SELECT
  department_name,
  AVG(salary) OVER(PARTITION BY department_name) -- AVG is a window function
FROM employee

The previous query doesn’t have a GROUP BY clause because the AVG() function is used as a window function. We can recognize that AVG() is a window function because of the presence of the OVER clause.

I suggest the article SQL Window Functions vs. GROUP BY for a complete comparison between window functions and the GROUP BY clause.

5. Show an Example of SQL Window Functions.

This is a good opportunity to mention a query that shows the importance of window functions and at the same time is connected with the queries we showed in previous questions. The query I suggest would solve this task: “Obtain employees’ names, salaries, department names, and the average salary of that department.”

This query is a simple way to show how we can combine row-level and aggregate data. (The window function returns the aggregate data.)

SELECT employee_name,
       salary,
       department_name,
       AVG(salary) OVER (PARTITION BY department) avg_salary 
FROM employee

Above, we can see the row-level columns employee_name, salary, and department with the average salary of each department, which is calculated by the AVG() window function. The PARTITION BY sub-clause defines that the windows of records will be created based on the value of the department_name column. All records with the same value in department_name will be in the same window. The results would look something like this:

employee_namesalarydepartment_nameavg_salary
John Doe93000Accounting93000
Jeremy Smith134000Sales127000
Donna Hayes120000Sales127000
Mark Ron78000Human Resources75000
Denis Serge72000Human Resources75000

To review more window functions examples, try the article SQL Window Function Examples with Explanations.

6. Name Some Common Window Functions.

Window functions can be organized into four categories: aggregate functions, ranking functions, analytic functions, and distribution functions.

The aggregate functions are the regular aggregate functions that you use with GROUP BY: MAX(), MIN(), AVG(), SUM(), and COUNT(). These functions, as we’ve already shown, can be used as window functions.

The ranking functions are ROW_NUMBER(), RANK(), and DENSE_RANK(). They are used to obtain different positions in a ranking. You can find a detailed explanation of the ranking functions in the following article.

The analytic functions include LEAD(), LAG(), FIRST_VALUE(), LAST_VALUE(), and NTH_VALUE(). These functions allow us to obtain data from rows other than the current row (e.g. the previous row, the next row, the last row within a window frame, etc). The NTILE() function divides rows within a partition into n groups and returns the group number.

Finally the distribution functions PERCENT_RANK() and CUME_DIST() allow us to obtain data about the percentile or cumulative distribution (respectively) for each row in the window.

I prefer analytic functions because they allow us to compare or calculate the differences between different records within the window (among other things). For example, if I have a time series with stock values, I could calculate how much the stock increased at each moment.

Here’s another example of analytic functions. The LEAD() and LAG() analytical window functions return a column from a subsequent/previous row. So, if we have a table with cryptocurrencies, with a timestamp and a quote value ...

SymbolTimestampValue
BTC2021-05-25 10:3061400
BTC2021-05-25 10:4060300
BTC2021-05-25 10:5059800
ETH2021-05-25 10:302700
ETH2021-05-25 10:402750
ETH2021-05-25 10:502820

Table Shares

… we can obtain the following report. To calculate the variation percentage, we need data from two different rows: The value in the current row, and the value in the previous row. The LEAD() function will return the value of the previous row. This is the result:

SymbolTimestampValue% Variation
BTC2021-05-25 10:3061400--
BTC2021-05-25 10:4060300-1.8%
BTC2021-05-25 10:5059800-0.8%
ETH2021-05-25 10:302700--
ETH2021-05-25 10:4027501.8%
ETH2021-05-25 10:5028202.5%

The % Variation column was calculated with this type of expression:

(Current_value - Previous_value ) / Previous_value

Note that the cryptocurrency value of the previous timestamp can be obtained with:

LEAD(value) OVER (PARTITION BY crypto_symbol ORDER BY timestamp) 

Here’s the full query:

SELECT Symbol, 
       Timestamp, 
       Value, 
       (Value - LEAD(Value) OVER (PARTITION BY Symbol ORDER BY Timestamp) /   
       LEAD(Value) OVER (PARTITION BY Symbol ORDER BY Timestamp) AS “% variation”
FROM   Cryptocurrencies

If you want to go deep with LAG() and LEAD(), I suggest reading the article The LAG() Function and the LEAD() Function in SQL. It has a detailed explanation about how window functions work in ordered windows.

Intermediate Window Function Questions

7. How Do You Define the Window Frame?

Window functions calculate an aggregated result based on a set of records called the “window” or “window frame”. Window frames are defined by the OVER() clause.

An empty OVER() clause means that the window is the entire dataset:

SELECT employee_name,
       salary,
       department_name,
       AVG(salary) OVER () avg_salary 
FROM employee

The above query computes the average salary and displays it next to the other employee details for all employees in the table.

There are several sub-clauses that can be placed inside the OVER() clause to precisely define a window.

The PARTITION BY sub-clause specifies that all records having the same value in a given column belong to the same window. In other words, PARTITION BY specifies how the window is defined. Thus, the following query computes the average salary for each department; the calculations are performed based on groupings of the values in the department_name column.

SELECT 
   employee_name,
   salary,
   department_name,
   AVG(salary) OVER (PARTITION BY department_name) avg_salary 
FROM employee

ORDER BY can also be used inside OVER(). It’s used to put window rows in a specific order. Ordered windows are very important because they enable the use of several analytical functions like LAG(), LEAD(), and FIRST_VALUE().

SELECT 
   employee_name,
   salary,
   department_name,
   LAG(salary) OVER (ORDER BY salary) prev_salary 
FROM employee

This query displays the salary of the employee immediately before the current employee in the salary order. Note that you can combine ORDER BY and PARTITION BY clauses in one query: the ordering is applied to each partition individually.

Two similar OVER() sub-clause are RANGE and ROWS. They define limits for the window frame by putting upper and/or lower limits to the window of records. This means window functions can be calculated based on a subset of rows instead of all the rows in the window. The difference between ROW and RANGE is explained in detail in our SQL window functions cheat sheet. More on ROWS and RANGE and the different limit options available will be explained in the next two questions.

8. How Does ORDER BY Work with OVER?

Some window functions (like LAG(), LEAD(), and FIRST_VALUE()) work on an ordered window of records. When using one of these functions, we need the ORDER BY sub-clause to define the order criteria. A good example of that is the previous query we used to calculate the variation percentage for cryptocurrencies:

SELECT Symbol, 
       Timestamp, 
       Value, 
       (Value - LEAD(Value) OVER (PARTITION BY Symbol ORDER BY Timestamp) /   
       LEAD(Value) OVER (PARTITION BY Symbol ORDER BY Timestamp) AS “% variation”
FROM   Cryptocurrencies

In the above query, the OVER clause has two sub-clauses: PARTITION BY and ORDER BY. PARTITION BY defines which records are in each window and ORDER BY defines the order of the records in the window. (In this example, we order records based on their timestamp.) Then the LEAD() function returns the value of the previous record.

If the OVER clause doesn’t include an  ORDER BY and we don’t have ROWS/RANGE, then the window frame is formed by all the rows complying with the PARTITION BY clause. However, when we use an ORDER BY clause without ROWS/RANGE, the window frame includes the rows between the first row (based on the ORDER BY clause) and the current row. In other words, those rows that go after the current row will not be included in the window frame. (We’ll explain more details on these limits in the next question.)

The window functions that require an ORDER BY sub-clause are:

  • RANK()
  • DENSE_RANK()
  • LEAD()
  • LAG()
  • FIRST_VALUE()
  • LAST_VALUE()
  • NTH_VALUE()
  • PERCENT_RANK()
  • CUME_LIST()

To understand more about how ORDER BY works, check out the article How to Calculate the Difference Between Two Rows in SQL.

Advanced Window Function Questions

9. Explain What UNBOUNDED PRECEDING Does.

A window frame is a set of rows that are somehow related to the current row, which is evaluated separately within each partition. When we use the ORDER BY clause, we can optionally define upper and lower limits for the window frame. The limits can be defined as:

  • UNBOUNDED PRECEDING
  • n PRECEDING
  • CURRENT ROW
  • n FOLLOWING
  • UNBOUNDED FOLLOWING

These limits can be defined with the RANGE or ROWS sub-clauses in the OVER() clause. UNBOUNDED PRECEDING indicates the lower limit of the window is the first record in the window; in the same way, the upper limit can be defined with UNBOUNDED FOLLOWING or CURRENT ROW. These limits should be used only with ordered windows.

In the following image, we can see how different limits function:

SQL window functions

For example, if we want to obtain the average value of a cryptocurrency considering only the values occurring up to the current value, we can use the following OVER() clause:

AVG(value) OVER (PARTITION BY symbol_name 
                 ORDER BY timestamp 
                 RANGE BETWEEN UNBOUNDED PRECEDING AND CURRENT ROW
                 ) 

In this OVER() clause, we defined the CURRENT ROW as the upper limit of the window to calculate the average. This is exactly what we need, as we don’t want to include values registered after the current timestamp in the average calculation.

10. Describe SQL’s Order of Operations and Window Functions’ Place in This Order.

The sub-clauses of an SQL SELECT are executed in the following order:

  1. FROM / JOINS
  2. WHERE
  3. GROUP BY
  4. Aggregate Functions
  5. HAVING
  6. Window Functions
  7. SELECT
  8. DISTINCT
  9. UNION / INTERSECT / EXCEPT
  10. ORDER BY
  11. OFFSET
  12. LIMIT / FETCH / TOP

Because window functions are calculated during step 6, we cannot put them in the WHERE clause (which is calculated in step 2). However, we can bypass this limitation by using a CTE (common table expression), where we can call window functions and store their results as columns in the CTE. The CTE will be treated like a table and the window function results will be evaluated as regular column values by the WHERE.

There is an interesting article on why window functions are not allowed in WHERE clauses that you should read if you’re looking for some examples.

On the other hand, we can use aggregation/grouping results in window functions, as they are already computed by the time the window functions are processed.

Want To Enhance Your SQL Window Functions Skills?

This article covers several possible job interview questions about SQL window functions. My final advice is about connecting the questions in this article with the questions you’ll get during an interview. Here it is:

Try to associate each question in this article with a window function topic, like “OVER clause”, “name a function” or “ORDER BY sub-clause”. Then, if you are asked about window functions during the interview, identify the topic of the question and use the information here to discuss the topic.

If you want to go deeper with SQL window functions, I suggest the article Course of the Month – Window Functions, which describes our Window Functions course. Growing your skills is an investment that might very well help you land the job!

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