Data Warehousing and Business Intelligence

11 December 2010

Data Warehousing Interview Questions

Filed under: Data Warehousing,Other — Vincent Rainardi @ 10:59 pm
Tags: ,

Following my article last week “SSAS Developer Interview Questions”, which generated quite a lot of responses, I thought I’d write similar thing on the data warehousing. Like before, I will be using LMH to show the complexity (Low, Medium, High). This time, I’ll add the “purpose”, i.e. what the questions are designed for.

Data warehousing skill never stands on its own. You don’t interview people just for their data warehousing knowledge. Usually you are either looking for an ETL developer (Informatica, DataStage, BODI, SSIS), a Microsoft BI developer (RS/AS/IS), a BO/Cognos (Report) Developer, a Data Warehouse Architect, a BI Solution Architect, an ETL Architect, a Data Architect or an Enterprise Architect. All these roles require data warehousing knowledge. So most likely you will be combining these questions with other questions, e.g. for an Informatica developer you will be combining them with Informatica questions.

When I interview to fill a role, what I look particularly is whether the candidate can do the job or not. Nowadays it is different from 10 years ago. We now have Google and Bing. Anything we don’t know we can quickly Google it. So the amount of knowledge is not important now. What is important (to me) is a) experience, b) problem solving and c) character. I remember about 3 years ago I was interviewing a candidate for a data architect role. The candidate was speaker in data architecture conference so we were convinced she must be very good. I asked her what the rule for the 2nd normal form was. She could not answer it. I asked the 1st and 3rd normal form and she could not answer them either. This is like bread and butter. You can’t do data modelling without knowing the normalisation rules.

But then in an interview with a bank 3 years ago I was also “blank” like her. I was an author of a SQL Server data warehousing & BI book so they were thinking high of me with regards to SSIS, SSAS and SSRS. They asked me what those 5 tabs in SSIS BIDS. I could mention 4 but could not remember the 5th one, even though I was using SSIS almost everyday. Since then when I interviewed I did not look for the amount of knowledge, but whether the candidate can solve problems instead. I remember one day my manager and I was interviewing for a Teradata developer role. I said to the candidate that the amount of Teradata knowledge that he had was not important. Within 5 minutes of opening the manual or Googling he would be able to get that information. So I said I would not ask him any Teradata SQL or BTEQ functions. Instead I gave him 2 real world problems that we were facing in the project and asked him to give me the solutions in about 5 minutes. The way he interrogated us with questions to get information about the project and finally suggested a good solution really impressed us, so we offered him the job. I can completely understand that some people disagree with my approach. After that interview my boss pulled me and told me off: “You must not say that in front of the candidates Vincent. Of course the amount of Teradata knowledge they possess is important! Why do you think we hire them for?”

So in the interview questions below, which crystallises from my experience, I put both knowledge-based and experience/problem solving questions. Generally I’m less interested in “theory only” questions, so I try to wrap them up in real world problems/situations.

I’m a firm believer that experience is the best teacher. So at interviews I always try to find out if the candidate has done it before. So I test them using every day problems. People who have done data warehousing will surely come across those problems, and understand what the solutions are. People who are new in data warehousing, or only know the DW theory from books wouldn’t have encountered those problems and would not have a clue what the answers are.

1. Question: How do you implement Slowly Changing Dimension type 2? I am not looking for the definition, but the practical implementation e.g. table structure, ETL/loading. {M}

Answer: Create the dimension table as normal, i.e. first the dim key column as an integer, then the attributes as varchar (or varchar2 if you use Oracle). Then I’d create 3 additional columns: IsCurrent flag, “Valid From” and “Valid To” (they are datetime columns). With regards to the ETL, I’d check first if the row already exists by comparing the natural key. If it exists then “expire the row” and insert a new row. Set the “Valid From” date to today’s date or the current date time.

An experienced candidate (particularly DW ETL developer) will not set the “Valid From” date to the current date time, but to the time when the ETL started. This is so that all the rows in the same load will have the same Valid From, which is 1 millisecond after the expiry time of the previous version thus avoiding issue with ETL workflows that run across midnight.

Purpose: SCD 2 is the one of the first things that we learn in data warehousing. It is considered the basic/fundamental. The purpose of this question is to separate the quality candidate from the ones who are bluffing. If the candidate can not answer this question you should worry.

2. Question: How do you index a fact table? And explain why. {H}

Answer: Index all the dim key columns, individually, non clustered (SQL Server) or bitmap (Oracle). The dim key columns are used to join to the dimension tables, so if they are indexed the join will be faster. An exceptional candidate will suggest 3 additional things: a) index the fact key separately, b) consider creating a covering index in the right order on the combination of dim keys, and c) if the fact table is partitioned the partitioning key must be included in all indexes.

Purpose: Many people know data warehousing only in theory or only in logical data model. This question is designed to separate those who have actually built a data warehouse and those who haven’t.

3. Question: In the source system, your customer record changes like this: customer1 and customer2 now becomes one company called customer99. Explain a) impact to the customer dim (SCD1), b) impact to the fact tables. {M}

Answer: In the customer dim we update the customer1 row, changing it to customer99 (remember that it is SCD1). We do soft delete on the customer2 row by updating the IsActive flag column (hard delete is not recommended). On the fact table we find the Surrogate Key for customer1 and 2 and update it with customer99’s SK.

Purpose: This is a common problem that everybody in data warehousing encounters. By asking this question we will know if the candidate has enough experience in data warehousing. If they have not come across this (probably they are new in DW), we want to know if they have the capability to deal with it or not.

4. Question: What are the differences between Kimball approach and Inmon’s? Which one is better and why? {L}

Answer: if you are looking for a junior role e.g. a developer, then the expected answer is: in Kimball we do dimension modelling, i.e. fact and dim tables whereas in Inmon’s we do CIF, i.e. EDW in normalised form and we then create a DM/DDS from the EDW. Junior candidates usually prefer Kimball, because of query performance and flexibility, or because that’s the only one they know; which is fine. But if you are interviewing for a senior role e.g. senior data architect then they need to say that the approach depends on the situation. Both Kimball & Inmon’s approaches have advantages and disadvantages. I explained some of the main reasons of having a normalised DW here.

Purpose: a) to see if the candidate understands the core principles of data warehousing or they just “know the skin”, b) to find out if the candidate is open minded, i.e. the solution depends on what we are trying to achieve (there’s right or wrong answer) or if they are blindly using Kimball for every situation.

5. Question: Suppose a fact row has unknown dim keys, do you load that row or not? Can you explain the advantage/disadvantages? {M}

Answer: We need to load that row so that the total of the measure/fact is correct. To enable us to load the row, we need to either set the unknown dim key to 0 or the dim key of the newly created dim rows. We can also not load that row (so the total of the measure will be different from the source system) if the business requirement prefer it. In this case we load the fact row to a quarantine area complete with error processing, DQ indicator and audit log. On the next day, after we receive the dim row, we load the fact row. This is commonly known as Late Arriving Dimension Rows and there are many sources for further information; one of the best is Bob Becker’s article here in 2006. Others refer to this as Early Arriving Fact Row, which Ralph Kimball explained here in 2004.

Purpose: again this is a common problem that we encounter in regular basis in data warehousing. With this question we want to see if the candidate’s experience level is up to the expectation or not.

6. Question: Please tell me your experience on your last 3 data warehouse projects. What were your roles in those projects? What were the issues and how did you solve them? {L}

Answer: There’s no wrong or right answer here. With this question you are looking for a) whether they have done similar things to your current project, b) whether their have done the same role as the role you are offering, c) whether they faces the same issues as your current DW project.

Purpose: Some of the reasons why we pay more to certain candidates compared to the others are: a) they have done it before they can deliver quicker than those who haven’t, b) they come from our competitors so we would know what’s happening there and we can make a better system than theirs, c) they have solved similar issues so we could “borrow their techniques”.

7. Question: What are the advantages of having a normalised DW compared to dimensional DW? What are the advantages of dimensional DW compared to normalised DW? {M}

Answer: For advantages of having a normalised DW see here and here. The advantages of dimensional DW are: a) flexibility, e.g. we can accommodate changes in the requirements with minimal changes on the data model, b) performance, e.g. you can query it faster than normalised model, c) it’s quicker and simpler to develop than normalised DW and easier to maintain.

Purpose: to see if the candidate has seen “the other side of the coin”. Many people in data warehousing only knows Kimball/dimensional. Second purpose of this question is to check if the candidate understands the benefit of dimensional modelling, which is a fundamental understanding in data warehousing.

8. Question: What is 3rd normal form? {L} Give me an example of a situation where the tables are not in 3rd NF, then make it 3rd NF. {M}

Answer: No column is transitively depended on the PK. For example, column1 is dependant on column2 and column2 is dependant on column3. In this case column3 is “transitively dependant” on column1. To make it 3rd NF we need to split it into 2 tables: table1 which has column1 & column2 and table2 which has column2 and column3.

Purpose: A lot of people talk about “3rd normal form” but they don’t know what it means. This is to test if the candidate is one of those people. If they can’t answer 3rd NF, ask 2nd NF. If they can’t answer 2nd NF, ask 1st NF.

9. Question: Tell me how to design a data warehouse, i.e. what are the steps of doing dimensional modelling? {M}

Answer: There are many ways, but it should not be too far from this order: 1. Understand the business process, 2. Declare the grain of the fact table, 3. Create the dimension tables including attributes, 4. Add the measures to the fact tables (from Kimball’s Toolkit book chapter 2). Step 3 and 4 could be reversed (add the fact first, then create the dims), but step 1 & 2 must be done in that order. Understanding the business process must always be the first, and declaring the grain must always be the second.

Purpose: This question is for data architect or data warehouse architect to see if they can do their job. It’s not a question for an ETL, report or cube developer.

10. Question: How do you join 2 fact tables? {H}

Answer: It’s a trap question. You don’t usually join 2 fact tables especially if they have different grain. When designing a dimensional model, you include all the necessary measures into the same fact table. If the measure you need is located on another fact table, then there’s something wrong with the design. You need to add that measure to the fact table you are working with. But what if the measure has a different grain? Then you add the lower grain measure to the higher grain fact table. What if the fact table you are working with has a lower grain? Then you need to get the business logic for allocating the measure.

It is possible to join 2 fact tables, i.e. using the common dim keys. But the performance is usually horrible, hence people don’t do this in practice, except for small fact tables (<100k rows). For example: if FactTable1 has dim1key, dim2key, dimkey3 and FactTable2 has dim1key and dim2key then you could join them like this:

select f2.dim1key, f2.dim2key, f1.measure1, f2.measure2
from
( select dim1key, dim2key, sum(measure1) as measure1
  from FactTable1
  group by dim1key, dim2key
) f1
join FactTable2 f2
on f1.dim1key = f2.dim1key and f1.dim2key = f2.dim2key

So if we don’t join 2 fact tables that way, how do we do it? The answer is using the fact key column. It is a good practice (especially in SQL Server because of the concept of cluster index) to have a fact key column to enable us to identify rows on the fact table (see my article here). The performance would be much better (than joining on dim keys), but you need to plan this in advance as you need to include the fact key column on the other fact table.

select f2.dim1key, f2.dim2key, f1.measure1, f2.measure2
from FactTable1 f1
join FactTable2 f2
on f2.fact1key = f1.factkey

I implemented this technique originally for self joining, but then expand the usage to join to other fact table. But this must be used on an exception basis rather than the norm.

Purpose: not to trap the candidate of course. But to see if they have the experience dealing with a problem which doesn’t happen every day.

11. Question: How do you index a dimension table? {L}

Answer: clustered index on the dim key, and non clustered index (individual) on attribute columns which are used on the query’s “where clause”.

Purpose: this question is critical to be asked if you are looking for a Data Warehouse Architect (DWA) or a Data Architect (DA). Many DWA and DA only knows logical data model. Many of them don’t know how to index. They don’t know how different the physical tables are in Oracle compared to in Teradata. This question is not essential if you are looking for a report or ETL developer. It’s good for them to know, but it’s not essential

12. Question: Tell me what you know about William Inmon? {L} Alternatively: Ralph Kimball.

Answer: He was the one who introduced the concept of data warehousing. Arguably Barry Devlin was the first one, but he’s not as popular as Inmon. If you ask who is Barry Devlin or who is Claudia Imhoff 99.9% of the candidates wouldn’t know. But every decent practitioner in data warehousing should know about Inmon and Kimball.

Purpose: to test if the candidate is a decent practitioner in data warehousing or not. You’ll be surprise (especially if you are interviewing a report developer) how many candidates don’t know the answer. If someone is applying for a BI architect role and he never heard about Inmon you should worry.

13. Question: How do we build a real time data warehouse? {H}

Answer: if the candidate asks “Do you mean real time or near real time” it may indicate that they have a good amount of experience dealing with this in the past. There are two ways we build a real time data warehouse (and this is applicable for both Normalised DW and Dimensional DW):

a) By storing previous periods’ data in the warehouse then putting a view on top of it pointing to the source system’s current period data. “Current period” is usually 1 day in DW, but in some industries e.g. online trading and ecommerce, it is 1 hour.

b) By storing previous periods’ data in the warehouse then use some kind of synchronous mechanism to propagate current period’s data. An example of synchronous data propagation mechanism is SQL Server 2008’s Change Tracking or the old school’s trigger.

Near real time DW is built using asynchronous data propagation mechanism, aka mini batch (2-5 mins frequency) or micro batch (30s – 1.5 mins frequency).

Purpose: to test if the candidate understands complex, non-traditional mechanism and follows the latest trends. Real time DW was considered impossible 5 years ago and only developed in the last 5 years. If the DW is normalised it’s easier to make it real time than if the DW is dimensional as there’s dim key lookup involved.

14. Question: What is the difference between a data mart and a data warehouse? {L}

Answer: Most candidates will answer that one is big and the other is small. Some good candidates (particularly Kimball practitioners) will say that data mart is one star. Whereas DW is a collection of all stars. An excellent candidate will say all the above answers, plus they will say that a DW could be the normalised model that store EDW, whereas DM is the dimensional model containing 1-4 stars for specific department (both relational DB and multidimensional DB).

Purpose: The question has 3 different levels of answer, so we can see how deep the candidate’s knowledge in data warehousing.

15. Question: What the purpose of having a multidimensional database? {L}

Answer: Many candidates don’t know what a multidimensional database (MDB) is. They have heard about OLAP, but not MDB. So if the candidate looks puzzled, help them by saying “an MDB is an OLAP database”. Many will say “Oh… I see” but actually they are still puzzled so it will take a good few moments before they are back to earth again. So ask again: “What is the purpose of having an OLAP database?” The answer is performance and easier data exploration. An MDB (aka cube) is a hundred times faster than relational DB for returning an aggregate. An MDB will be very easy to navigate, drilling up and down the hierarchies and across attributes, exploring the data.

Purpose: This question is irrelevant to report or ETL developer, but a must for a cube developer and DWA/DA. Every decent cube developer (SSAS, Hyperion, Cognos) should be able to answer the question as it’s their bread and butter.

16. Question: Why do you need a staging area? {M}

Answer: Because:

a) Some data transformations/manipulations from source system to DWH can’t be done on the fly, but requires several stages and therefore needs to “be landed on disk first”

b) The time to extract data from the source system is limited (e.g. we were only given 1 hour window) so we just “get everything we need out first and process later”

c) For traceability and consistency, i.e. some data transform are simple and some are complex but for consistency we put all of them on stage first, then pick them up from stage for further processing

d) Some data is required by more than 1 parts of the warehouse (e.g. ODS and DDS) and we want to minimise the impact to the source system’s workload. So rather than reading twice from the source system, we “land” the data on the staging then both the ODS and the DDS read the data from staging.

Purpose: This question is intended more for an ETL developer than a report/cube developer. Obviously a data architect needs to know this too.

17. Question: How do you decide that you need to keep it as 1 dimension or split it into 2 dimensions? Take for example dim product: there are attributes which are at product code level and there are attributes which are at product group level. Should we keep them all in 1 dimension (product) or split them into 2 dimensions (product and product group)? {H}

Answer: Depends on how they are going to be used, as I explained in my article “One or two dimensions” here.

Purpose: To test if the candidate is conversant in dimensional modelling. This question especially is relevant for data architects and cube developers and less relevant for a report or ETL developer.

18. Question: Fact table columns usually numeric. In what case does a fact table have a varchar column? {M}

Answer: degenerate dimension

Purpose: to check if the candidate has ever involved in detailed design of warehouse tables. Follow up with question 19.

19. Question: What kind of dimension is a “degenerate dimension”?  Give me an example. {L}

Answer: A “dimension” which stays in the fact table. It is usually the reference number of the transaction. For example: Transaction ID, payment ref and order ID

Purpose: Just another question to test the fundamentals.

20. Question: What is show flaking? What are the advantages and disadvantages? {M}

Answer: In dimensional modelling, snow flaking is breaking a dimension into several tables by normalising it. The advantages are: a) performance when processing dimensions in SSAS, b) flexibility if the sub dim is used in several places e.g. city is used in dim customer and dim supplier (or in insurance DW: dim policy holder and dim broker), c) one place to update, and d) the DW load is quicker as there are less duplications of data. The disadvantages are: a) more difficult in “navigating the star*”, i.e. need joins a few tables, b) worse “sum group by*” query performance (compared to “pure star*”), c) more flexible in accommodating requirements, i.e. the city attributes for dim supplier don’t have to be the same as the city attributes for dim customer, d) the DW load is simpler as you don’t have to integrate the city.

*: a “star” is a fact table with all its dimensions, “navigating” means browsing/querying, “sum group by” is a SQL select statement with a “group by” clause, pure star is a fact table with all its dimensions and none of the dims are snow-flaked.

Purpose: Snow flaking is one of the classic debates in dimensional modelling community. It is useful to check if the candidate understands the reasons of just “following blindly”. This question is applicable particularly for data architect and OLAP designer. If their answers are way off then you should worry. But it also relevant to ETL and report developers as they will be populating and querying the structure.

I hope these interview questions will be useful for the data warehousing community. Not only for the interviewees but also for the interviewers. I’m sure I made some mistakes in this article (everybody does) so if you spot one please contact me. As usual I welcome any question & discussion at vrainardi@gmail.com.

Vincent Rainardi, 11/12/2010

Update 6/5/2012: Just a quick note that Arshad Khan has put together 500 data warehousing and BI questions and answers in his new book: Business Intelligence & Data Warehousing Simplified: 500 Questions, Answers, & Tips. It is by far the most comprehensive Interview Questions I have ever seen and will be very useful for preparing interviews. Some of the questions are:

  • What is a fact?
  • What are the different types of facts?
  • What are the characteristics of a fact table?
  • What is fact table granularity?
  • What is OLAP?
  • What are the benefits of OLAP?
  • What are OLAP limitations?
  • How does OLAP impact the data warehouse?
  • What are OLAP Models?
  • What is the Inmon approach?
  • What is the Kimball approach?
  • What is a star schema?
  • What are the benefit of a star schema?
  • What is the snowflake schema?
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11 Comments »

  1. Good work

    Comment by Ali Dogar — 11 May 2011 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

  2. Very Impressive and insightful.

    Comment by Raphik Minaua — 7 June 2011 @ 4:08 am | Reply

  3. great article

    Comment by vinay — 7 December 2011 @ 4:03 pm | Reply

  4. […] Data Warehousing Interview Questions […]

    Pingback by sql server business intelligence interview questions and answers » SQL SERVER LEARNER — 24 April 2012 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  5. thanks, it was helpful.

    Comment by gita — 6 May 2012 @ 9:49 pm | Reply

  6. Thanks for sharing this extremly specific interview tip article. You didn’t mention it but I really like the question, “How to maintain Business intelligence activities?” is a great question that not only allows you to show your technical skills, but also your management and decision making skills. Thanks again!
    http://questionstoaskduringaninterview.net/business-intelligence-interview-questions/

    Comment by scoyne2 — 27 May 2012 @ 8:06 pm | Reply

  7. here i have collected lots of topics related to:

    Data Warehouse Interview Questions and Answers

    kindly have a look this would help you a lot

    Regards,

    Akaas Developer

    Comment by Akaas Developer — 12 June 2012 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  8. Perfect….exactly what I was looking for!

    Comment by Kerri — 21 December 2012 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

  9. it is very good information , if you can add little more information about inputs for creating data modeling and who ever involved into that process it will good and ( like business requirement — data modeling — conceptual design –logical design – physical design) like that it will give clear picture how to execute data warehouse project for

    Comment by sahadevan — 19 May 2013 @ 12:15 pm | Reply

    • Hi Sahadevan,
      some people create the data model based on the source systems. But I usually create the data model based on the reporting/cubes requirements, i.e. I identified what data elements are required for the cubes/reports. These data elements are the ones I created on the dimensional model. Based on that I specify the requirements for the ETL, i.e. where these data element should be sourced from. After it goes live, often there are new reporting/cube requirements for new data elements (new attributes, new measures) so we add them to the dimensional model, and source them on the ETL design. So no, I don’t bring everything from the source systems, but only the data elements required for the analytics/reporting/dashboard.

      As per conceptual model – logical model – physical model, I usually start with list of entities and how they are connected to each other. Based on this list of entities I draw the conceptual model at entity level. Then I identify the attributes and measures for each entity and create the logical dimensional model. Translating to physical model usually it is an exercise of a) identifying the appropriate data type, b) identify appropriate indexes, c) identify appropriate partitioning criteria. If there is an ODS or NDS on the warehouse, I usually design it based on the source systems, but I try to make it truely 3NF (lots of tables from the source systems are 2NF or 1NF).

      Hope this make it clearer for you. If you have further question please don’t hesitate. Also if you (or anybody) have a different view/practice I’d be interested to hear from you. Of course, there is not only 1 approach that we can use, but there are many approaches that we can use to design the data model for a DW project.

      Comment by Vincent Rainardi — 19 May 2013 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  10. Try hands on Informatica using a book
    http://www.amazon.in/Learning-Informatica-PowerCenter-Rahul-Malewar/dp/1782176489/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1444030559&sr=1-1
    Regards,
    Rahul Malewar
    8411002339

    Comment by Rahul Malewar — 17 October 2015 @ 6:02 am | Reply


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