March 28, 2024

10 SQL Skills You Need to Know in 2024

In the current job market, understanding how to use SQL can significantly boost your career prospects. A recent StackOverflow survey of 90,000 developers revealed that SQL ranks as the fourth most popular programming language.

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Even as AI impacts the industry, SQL's widespread use makes it a must-have for entering data fields.* This post focuses specifically on skills for reading and querying data with SQL, which is a valuable asset for those looking to break into the data industry or advance their career. The goal is to educate you about key SQL concepts, showcase practical applications, and inspire you to start learning with resources like Dataquest's SQL Fundamentals skill path.

Why You Need to Learn SQL Skills in 2024

SQL skills are the bread and butter for making data-driven decisions and managing the massive amounts of data generated in today's workplaces. In 2024, SQL proficiency will continue to be critical for both launching a career in data and advancing in many industries. Consider these key insights:

  • SQL is the most in-demand technical skill for data jobs.*
  • The SQL market is projected to grow to over $9 billion by 2025.*

Beyond technical benefits, organizations see SQL mastery as a strategic asset. Professionals who can extract clear insights from complex data and communicate them effectively are highly valued. Whether you're a student looking to break into data or an experienced pro upskilling to get ahead, SQL is a must-have. Dataquest's SQL Fundamentals skill path provides a practical way to build job-ready SQL skills for the data-driven future.

Top 10 SQL Skills You Need to Succeed in 2024

To help you navigate the world of SQL and become a data-driven professional, we've identified the top 10 skills you need to master:

  1. SELECT
  2. Aggregate functions
  3. GROUP BY
  4. Data Filtering and Sorting Techniques
  5. JOIN Data
  6. Subqueries
  7. CTEs
  8. WINDOW FUNCTIONS
  9. Differences between dialects
  10. Working locally and in the cloud

By understanding these ten SQL skills, you'll be well-equipped to excel in the data-driven job market of 2024 and beyond. In the following sections, we'll take a deeper look at each of these key skills, providing practical examples and insights to help you develop a robust SQL skillset. Whether you're new to the field or looking to enhance your existing data expertise, this guide will equip you with the knowledge and techniques needed to thrive in the evolving world of data analytics.

1. SELECT

The SELECT statement in SQL allows you to retrieve data from a database. One key decision when using SELECT is whether to get all columns using the wildcard (*) or only specific ones. This choice impacts both database performance and data security.

Selecting All Columns:

  • Useful for initial data exploration
  • Provides a broad view of the data
  • May slow down queries with large datasets

Selecting Specific Columns:

  • Improves query performance
  • Retrieves only relevant data
  • Helps protect sensitive information

In most professional scenarios, selecting specific columns is best practice because it optimizes system resources and aligns with data privacy principles. However, there are situations where selecting all columns is appropriate, such as when conducting preliminary analyses.

Using SELECT also involves learning how to choose the right columns for different queries, and understanding the performance implications of each approach. Dataquest's Introduction to SQL and Databases course discusses into these topics, providing hands-on practice to build your proficiency. As AI advances, core SQL skills like effective SELECT statements remain essential for data professionals.

2. Aggregate Functions

Being fluent in SQL's aggregate functions is incredibly important for efficiently analyzing and summarizing large datasets. These functions are:

  • SUM: Calculates the total of numerical values in a column
  • AVG: Determines the average (mean) of numerical values
  • MIN and MAX: Identify the smallest and largest values, respectively
  • COUNT: Tallies the number of rows meeting a specific criteria

Aggregate functions have broad applications across industries. For example, a sales manager might use SUM to calculate total revenue, AVG to determine average order size, and COUNT to track daily transactions. Proficiency in these functions enhances analytical capabilities and improves overall query performance.

While learning syntax and use cases can be challenging initially, knowing how to use these functions to answer business questions is important for anyone looking to learn SQL. Dataquest's Summarizing Data in SQL course provides real-world applications to help you understand how these functions can apply to the real world.

3. GROUP BY

The GROUP BY clause is a fundamental SQL skill for organizing and analyzing data. It groups rows with the same values in specified columns, enabling summary reports like:

  • Totaling daily sales by date
  • Counting orders per customer
  • Segmenting data by product category

Correctly using the GROUP BY clause requires practice, especially when combining it with other SQL functions like JOINs or filtering data. Start with basic queries before progressing to more complex analyses using multiple grouping columns. Investing time to thoroughly understand this concept opens doors for you to extract valuable insights from raw data.

4. Data Filtering and Sorting Techniques

To efficiently analyze data and advance your career, you must understand key SQL filtering and sorting techniques:

  • WHERE: Filters records based on conditions
  • HAVING: Filters aggregated records from GROUP BY
  • ORDER BY: Sorts results ascending or descending
  • LIKE: Matches a specified pattern
  • IN: Checks against a list of values
  • BETWEEN: Selects values within a range
  • DISTINCT: Returns unique values
  • LIMIT: Restricts the number of returned rows

Practical Applications and Benefits

Color coded SQL output showing the WHERE clause filtering out consumer orders.

Data professionals use these techniques to extract insights from large datasets. For example, marketers apply WHERE to target corporate customers and ORDER BY to identify top-performing customers. Mastering these skills helps you quickly locate key information, making you invaluable in data analysis and business intelligence roles.

Overcoming Challenges

One of the most common hurdles people have with SQL filtering is knowing when to use HAVING vs. WHERE because their purpose seems similar on the surface. To help remember the difference, think of WHERE as filtering individual records, while HAVING filters aggregated groups. Hands-on practice with sample datasets is invaluable for solidifying this distinction.

5. JOIN Data

SQL JOIN clauses combine rows from two or more tables based on a related column. There are several different types of JOIN in SQL, and knowing when and how to correctly utilize them is where the true power of working with SQL with relational databases starts to shine.

Demonstration gif of a

INNER JOINs return records with matching values in both tables, while LEFT and RIGHT JOINs include all records from one table and only matching records from the other. FULL JOINs combine the results of LEFT and RIGHT JOINs, and CROSS JOINs generate the Cartesian product of the tables involved. Each type has specific use cases, such as ensuring data completeness or generating specific combinations.

Learning JOINs for Career Growth

Proficiency in JOIN operations boosts your job prospects in data-driven industries because it allows you to work effectively with complex databases, optimize query performance, and perform advanced analyses. JOINs are often challenging for students starting out with SQL because the different JOIN types can seem confusing. It's helpful to keep an example of each type handy so you can reference them when you need to determine the best type to use. To help with this, Dataquest's Combining Tables in SQL course provides hands-on practice with real-world applications for all the different JOIN types.

6. Subqueries

Subqueries are valuable for writing flexible SQL queries and retrieving complex data in a single query. They enable advanced data manipulation, making them a valuable skill for data-focused careers.

Sample SQL query highlighting the placement of a subquery in the main SELECT clause.

Subqueries, also known as nested queries, are SQL queries placed within another query. They let you perform multi-step data operations that would otherwise require multiple queries. Subqueries are commonly used to:

  • Identify records that do not match across tables
  • Aggregate data before applying filter conditions
  • Create temporary result sets for further analysis

Proficiency in subqueries can advance your career by demonstrating the ability to efficiently work with complex datasets. Even as AI transforms SQL applications, fundamental skills like subqueries will remain important. Focusing your learning on concepts core to querying data will keep your knowledge relevant even as technology evolves.

7. Common Table Expressions (CTEs)

Common Table Expressions (CTEs) are named temporary result sets within an SQL statement. They can be referenced multiple times in a query, making them useful for breaking down complex queries into more manageable parts. By using CTEs, you can improve query structure and performance while making your SQL code more readable.

Sample SQL common table expression (CTE) with an explanation of how WITH is used to create a CTE with an alias that can then be used like a regular table.

CTEs have many practical applications. For instance, a data analyst could use a CTE to calculate a running total of sales for each product category before joining that data with inventory information. This approach is often clearer and more efficient than writing a complex subquery.

The key benefits of using CTEs include:

  • Improved query organization and readability
  • Ability to reference a subquery multiple times
  • Potential performance improvements through optimization

However, CTEs can be challenging when you're first learning SQL. Some common hurdles include:

  • Understanding the differences between CTEs and subqueries
  • Determining when a CTE is the best solution
  • Debugging errors in complex CTE structures

If you're looking to build your CTE skills, Dataquest's interactive SQL Subqueries course is a great resource. With hands-on practice and real-world applications, you'll gain the knowledge you need to use CTEs effectively in your SQL queries.

8. Window Functions

Window functions are a powerful SQL tool for advanced data analysis. They allow you to perform calculations across a set of rows related to the current row, without the need for complex joins or subqueries. This makes them very efficient for tasks like calculating running totals, ranking data, or comparing values between rows.

Diagram showing the difference between aggregation, which condenses data, and window functions, which calculates without losing granularity.

Window functions are especially useful for scenarios that require comparing rows within a result set, such as analyzing financial data over time. Unlike aggregate functions that combine multiple rows into a single result, window functions maintain each row's identity, allowing for more detailed analysis. Some common applications include:

  • Calculating cumulative sums or moving averages
  • Ranking or row numbering within groups
  • Comparing values to preceding or following rows

To use window functions effectively, start by understanding basic functions like ROW_NUMBER(), RANK(), and LEAD(). Then practice applying them to real datasets to see their practical benefits. Keep your syntax straightforward by clearly defining the OVER clause for optimal performance. Dataquest's Window Functions in SQL course provides hands-on training to build your skills. As data analysis grows more complex, proficiency with window functions will be an asset for any data professional.

9. Differences Between SQL Dialects

SQL dialects are variations of the SQL language adapted by different database systems, each affecting compatibility and ease of use. Learning the differences between SQL dialects (or flavors) like MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQLite is valuable for data professionals. Understanding the unique features of each dialect can optimize code performance and ensure seamless integration across platforms.

Ice cream cones showing different

Knowledge of multiple SQL dialects makes professionals versatile and employable across various roles. This skill set is highly valued and often associated with higher salaries. Professionals who can navigate diverse database environments are assets to any data-driven organization.

While it's not mandatory to be 100% fluent in every SQL flavor, having a basic understanding of the syntax differences can be extremely helpful for anyone looking for a job at a place that uses a different flavor than what you're used to. We recommend familiarizing yourself with at least one SQL dialect beyond SQLite, which is a common first flavor for people to learn.

10. Working Locally and in the Cloud

Learning SQL for both local and cloud environments is important for advancing data careers today. As businesses increasingly adopt cloud platforms like AWS, Google Cloud, and Azure for data storage and processing, professionals need to be skilled in working with databases across these systems. This allows you to:

  • Scale data processing efficiently
  • Automate data management tasks
  • Collaborate effectively on analytics projects

Building these skills requires hands-on practice with tasks, which can be challenging because many cloud-based servers have costs associated with them. To overcome this, you can:

  1. Use Free Tiers and Trials: Many cloud providers offer free tiers or trial periods that allow users to access cloud resources at no cost for a limited time. Learners can leverage these free options to gain practical experience with cloud databases and data processing without incurring immediate costs. Examples include AWS Free Tier, Google Cloud Free Tier, and Azure Free Account.
  2. Use Local Database Environments: In addition to cloud-based databases, learners can set up local database environments on their own computers using tools like PostgreSQL or MySQL. This allows you to practice SQL skills without incurring cloud-based costs, while still gaining experience with database management.

Staying current with SQL and cloud computing developments positions you for career growth in data analytics and database management.

Common Misconceptions and Challenges in SQL

Learning SQL is a foundational skill for excelling in data science or analytics, but it comes with challenges. Misconceptions often stem from experience in other domains, causing confusion about SQL's unique syntax and operations. For instance, those used to procedural programming in languages like Python or R may find it difficult to adapt to SQL's declarative nature, resulting in inefficient queries.

Key Areas of Misunderstanding

  • Assumptions Based on Prior Coursework: Learners may assume that SQL works the same way as other programming languages, such as expecting to use loops or conditional statements to retrieve data, when SQL is actually a declarative language focused on describing the desired outcome rather than the step-by-step process.
  • Overgeneralization Errors: Applying the concept of "joining tables" from relational database theory to SQL without understanding the specific syntax and semantics of SQL's JOIN clause can lead to inefficient queries that don't properly handle relationships between tables.
  • Confusion Around SQL-Specific Language: Confusing the difference between SQL keywords like "WHERE" and "HAVING", or confusing the use of aggregate functions like "SUM" and "COUNT", can result in queries that don't produce the intended results.
  • Flawed Mental Models of SQL Data Processing: Thinking of SQL as simply a way to filter and extract data from a database, without understanding the underlying relational model and how SQL operations like grouping and sorting work, can lead to suboptimal query performance and design.

These issues lead to common mistakes like poorly designed joins that ignore relational database principles, emphasizing the importance of structured SQL learning resources*.

To effectively overcome these challenges, you should use resources that combine theory and hands-on practice. Being aware of potential misconceptions allows you to develop more effective data querying approaches.

Getting Started with SQL

SQL skills are essential for working with data. Focusing on foundational concepts is the key to success when you start learning SQL. Begin with:

  • SELECT statements to retrieve data
  • Aggregate functions like SUM and AVG to summarize data
  • JOINs and subqueries to combine data from multiple tables

Once you grasp the basics, apply your knowledge through hands-on projects. Analyzing real datasets will reinforce your understanding and prepare you for practical data tasks.

You should also take some time choosing the right learning platform for your needs and learning style. Look for a comprehensive curriculum that covers fundamental to advanced topics and includes projects. Dataquest's SQL Fundamentals skill path is an excellent resource, teaching essential skills for reading and manipulating data.

After learning the core concepts, dive into projects immediately. Analyzing e-commerce sales data or social media sentiment will test your skills on real-world challenges. Additionally, building a project portfolio will solidify your knowledge and boost your confidence.

Stay current with the latest in SQL by engaging with online communities. Platforms like StackOverflow and Linkedin groups connect you with professionals to discuss trends, solve problems, and continue learning.

In 2024 and beyond, SQL remains a vital skill, even as AI transforms the data landscape. Combining a strong foundation with practical experience and continuous learning will set you up for success in data-focused careers.

Why Choose Dataquest for Learning Data Reading with SQL

Project-Based Learning

Dataquest's SQL courses stand out for their unique project-based curriculum. By working hands-on with real-world datasets, you gain practical experience with data manipulation and analysis. Projects like analyzing e-commerce sales or social media sentiment prepare you for the challenges of today's data-centric careers.

Comprehensive Skill-Building

Our structured learning paths guide you from SQL basics to advanced techniques. Skill paths like SQL Fundamentals provide a comprehensive introduction to databases, querying, and beyond. You systematically build essential skills through interactive lessons and practice problems. Additionally, Dataquest focuses on teaching you the SQL skills that matter most in the real world. Lessons incorporate scenarios you'll encounter on the job, so you're ready to apply your knowledge from day one.

Community Support

When you learn with Dataquest, you're part of a community. Connect with peers and professionals on our online platform to get help, share knowledge, and grow your network. Stay up-to-date with the latest SQL trends and get advice from those succeeding in the field.

As AI transforms data science, SQL skills are more important than ever. A strong foundation in querying and data manipulation remains highly valuable, even as technologies change. With Dataquest, you'll gain the practical SQL skills to stay competitive and advance your data career in 2024 and beyond.

Conclusion

SQL skills are critical for professional growth in 2024. The ability to manipulate, analyze and draw insights from data using SQL provides a major advantage in many industries. Mastering skills like querying, data manipulation, joins, CTEs, and window functions can significantly advance your career.

To start learning SQL effectively:

  1. Begin with fundamentals like creating tables and writing basic queries
  2. Progress to advanced topics like subqueries through hands-on practice
  3. Use structured learning materials like Dataquest's SQL Fundamentals skill path

It's also crucial to stay current with SQL and data analytics trends, especially as AI transforms the field. Continuously developing your SQL skills prepares you for both today's roles and future opportunities. Dataquest offers a blend of in-depth curriculum and peer community to support you in building job-ready SQL skills for 2024 and beyond.

Anna Strahl

About the author

Anna Strahl

A former math teacher of 8 years, Anna always had a passion for learning and exploring new things. On weekends, you'll often find her performing improv or playing chess.