Sorting algorithms: Technical interviews must-know

Sorting algorithms are a must-know for any technical interview, be it a startup or a FANG company like Facebook, Amazon. If you fail to explain the sorting algorithm you are using and why are you using it, you can kiss goodbye to your interview. However, the most important aspect of sorting algorithms is their complexity. We will be going through 5 most known algorithms and group them by their complexity. Another aspect that is good know is the stability of the sorting algorithm.

Stability does the sorting algorithm maintain the relative order of elements that are equal?

The first group is of polynomial complexity like O(n2) and second group is linear logarithmic complexity like (n log n). Algorithms like Selection Sort, Bubble Sort, and Insertion sort fall in the first group. Quicksort, Merge sort and heap sort they fall in the second group.

Worst-case complexity of quicksort is O(n2), however, that is limited to very specific cases like already sorted input, on all other cases, if the pivot is selected properly, it will give O(nlogn)

Selection sort

The fundamental of this sort is: Find the minimum element in remaining unsorted array and put it at the current position. We start with index 0 and go all the way to the last index, find the minimum in the remaining array, and put it to the current index.

  public static void selectionSort(int[] arr){  
      for (int i = 0; i < arr.length - 1; i++){  
            int index = i;
            //Select minimum in the remaining array  
            for (int j = i + 1; j < arr.length; j++){  
                if (arr[j] < arr[index]){  
                    index = j;
            //Swap the smallest number and current index number
            int smallestNumber = arr[index];   
            arr[index] = arr[i];  
            arr[i] = smallerNumber;  

If you are wondering why complexity of selection sort is O(n2) even though inner loop goes from i+1 to end, I would suggest reading this post on calculation of time complexity in for loop. The space complexity is O(1).

Bubble sort

The fundamental of Bubble sort is: Compare two adjacent indices, if they are out of order, put them in order. We start with index 0, compare it with every new neighbor till the end of the array. After each pass, we have sorted one element.

   void bubbleSort(int arr[]) 
        int n = arr.length; 
        for (int i=0; i < n; i++){
            for (int j = 1; j < n-i; j++){
                if (arr[j-1] > arr[j]){ 
                    // swap arr[j-1] and arr[j] 
                    int temp = arr[j]; 
                    arr[j] = arr[j-1]; 
                    arr[j-1] = temp; 

The time complexity is obviously O(n2) and the space complexity is O(1). Bubble sort is a stable sorting algorithm.

Insertion sort

The third algorithm in the polynomial complexity class is insertion sort, fundamental of it is: Taken element and put it in its correct position in the array by shifting all the indices on right by 1. The idea to keep the part of the array sorted, examine all the indices, and put them at the correct position in the sorted part of the array.

    void insertionSort(int arr[]){ 
        int n = arr.length; 
        for (int i = 1; i < n; ++i) { 
            int key = arr[i]; 
            int j = i - 1; 
            /* Move elements of arr[0..i-1], that are 
               greater than key, to one position ahead 
               of their current position */
            while (j >= 0 && arr[j] > key) { 
                arr[j + 1] = arr[j]; 
                j = j - 1; 
            arr[j + 1] = key; 

Time complexity is O(n2) and space complexity is O(1). Insertion sort is stable sort as well.


The entire idea of quicksort revolves around a pivot. Pivot is an element in input around which input is arranged in such a way that all elements on the left side are smaller and all elements on the right side are greater than the pivot. The question is how to find or select pivot and put it into the correct position.
To put this pivot at the correct position in input, start with the next element of pivot in input space, and find an element that is greater than the pivot. Let that be ith position.

At the same time, start from the end of the array and find an element that is smaller than pivot. Let it be jth position.

If i and j have not crossed each other i.e i < j, then swap element at ith and jth positions, and continue moving right on input to find element greater than pivot and moving left to find element smaller than pivot. Once i and j cross each other, swap pivot with element at jth position.
After this step, the pivot will be at its correct position and the array will be divided into two parts. All elements on the left side will be less than the pivot and all elements on the right side will be greater than the pivot.

Recursively apply quicksort on left and right subarray, until there is only one element to sort.

    private void swap(int [] a, int i, int j){
        int temp = a[i];
        a[i] = a[j];
        a[j] = temp;

    private int partition(int [] a, int start, int end){
        int pivot = a[start];
        int i  = start;
        int j  = end;

        while(i < j){
            while(i <= end && a[i] <= pivot) i++;
            while(j >= start && a[j] > pivot) j--;
            if(i < j) {
                swap(a, i, j);

        swap(a, start, j);
        return j;

    public void quickSort(int [] a, int start, int end){
        if(start < end){
            int p = partition(a, start, end);
            quickSort(a,start, p-1);
            quickSort(a, p+1, end);

Time complexity of the quicksort implementation depends on the selection of pivot. If pivot splits the original array into two equal parts (which is the intention), the complexity of quicksort is O(n log n) (Master Theorem).

The worst-case complexity of quick sort happens when array is sorted or reverse sorted. Array is partitioned into two subarrays, one with size 1 and other with size n-1. Subarray with n-1 elements, it again is divided into two subarrays of size 1 and n-2. In order to completely sort array, it will split for n-1 times and each time it requires to traverse n element to find the correct position of pivot. Hence overall complexity of quick sort comes out as O(n2).

What is space complexity of this algorithm? There is no apparent memory is used. However, recursive implementation internally puts stack frames on the stack for partitioned indices and function call return addresses and so on. In the worst case, there can be n stack frames, so, the worst-case complexity of quicksort will be O(n).

Merge sort

Merge sort algorithm falls in divide and conquer class of algorithms where input space is divided into subproblems and these subproblems are then solved individually and combined together to solve the original problems.
A question arises is what is the smallest subproblem? The smallest subproblem is where input cannot be further divided, a subproblem with one item to sorted. Once the split is done to the smallest size, we start merging. Going from the bottom, start with two one-item subproblems, combine that to create a two-item subproblem, then combine two two-items subproblems to create a four-item subproblem. Go on till you get a problem with the original size.
In merge operation, scan both sorted arrays one by one element and based on the output of comparison, put one of the two items into output array, till both arrays are scanned.

int merge(int[] a, int start, int mid, int end){
    int i,j,k;
    int temp[end-start+1];
    i = start; j = mid+1; k=0;
    /* Compare all elements of two sorted arrays and store
      them in sorted array. */
    while(i <= mid && j <= end){
        if(a[i]< a[j]){
            temp[k++]= a[i++];
        else {
            temp[k++]  = a[j++];
    while(i <= mid){
        temp[k++] = a[i++]; 
    while(j <= end){
        temp[k++] = a[j++]; 
    //Copy the temporary array into original array
    for(i=0; i<k; i++){
        a[i+start] = temp[i];
int mergeSort(int a[], int start, int end ){
    int mid  = (start + end)/2;
        //sort the left part
        mergeSort(a, start, mid);
        //sort right part
        mergeSort(a, mid+1, end);
        //merge them together
        merge(a, start, mid, end);

For n elements in an array, there will be O(logn) such steps. Hence, the complexity of merge sort algorithm is O(nlogn) Refer Master theorem.

Every time we merge, two sub-arrays an auxiliary array is needed to temporarily store array elements and that incurs O(n) space complexity on merge sort algorithm.

This in addition to overhead caused by recursion.

Heap Sort

This one depends on the concept of heaps, which is covered on this website here: Heaps Fundamental is that we put all the elements in a priority queue or heap, min-heap to be precise. Then take element one by one and add back into the array. Using Java this is one of the simplest sorting algorithms, given that we get an inbuilt implementation of the priority queue in java.

    public void heapSort (int[] a){

        PriorityQueue<Integer> pq =

        int i = 0;
            a[i] = pq.poll();
                .forEach(e -> System.out.print(e + " "));

The time complexity of heap sort is O(long) and space complexity is O(n).

There is another class of sorting algorithms that sort input in linear time complexity, but those algorithms are dependent on some conditions to be present in the input, for example for Radix sort, the input must be an integer.

Prepare your sorting algorithm basics and understand time and space complexity and stability. It is very good to know the fundamentals of them, even if you are using the inbuild library or function to do the sorting.

Always account for complexity for sorting algorithm in your solution, most the time that dominates the complexity.

If you are preparing for an interview and need some help with preparation, please reach out to us or book a session with us to understand more.

3-way quicksort (Quick sort on non unique elements)

In the post on the Dutch National Flag Algorithm, we discussed how to sort an array in linear time by partitioning it in four parts, red, white, unknown and blue. Can we apply the same technique on quick sort.? As we all know, quick sort relies on the partitioning of input into two parts. What if we divide the input into three parts? Then it becomes a 3-way quicksort.

The 3-way partition variation of quick-sort has a slightly higher overhead compared to the standard 2-way partition version. Both have the same best, typical, and worst-case time bounds, but the 3-way version is highly adaptive in the very common case of sorting with many non-unique keys.

Quicksort basics and limitation

Before going ahead with 3-way partition method, I would strongly recommend that you go through the usual quick sort algorithm: Quicksort algorithm in C

A big limitation of quicksort is that it has O(n2) worst-case running time. Some improvements have been suggested as given below:

  • The cutoff to insertion sort. Switch to insertion sort for arrays with size less than a pre-decided limit. We follow quick sort and partition array. Once the size of the partitioned array goes lower than the limit, apply insertion sort on that array. Limit varies from system to system and typically it is between 5 to 15.
  • Median-of-three partitioning. Use median of a small sample of items taken from the array as the partitioning item. Doing so will give a slightly better partition but at the cost of computing the median.

There is another optimization which is called as Entropy-optimal sorting or 3-way partition quick sort. This method is useful when the input array contains a lot of duplicate values which can be frequently seen in the real world. The idea is to divide the array in three parts rather than two. Let’s say P is the pivot index. The first part contains all the numbers which are less than P, the second part contains number equal to P and the last part contains numbers which are greater than P.

3-way quicksort algorithm 

Some of the properties of the 3-way quicksort are:
It is not stable! Avoid using quicksort in cases where stability is essential.
It uses O(log(n)) extra space, why? Because of the recursion.
Worst case run time is as same as classic quicksort, O(n2), but typically O(nlog(n)) time
The best part is that it takes O(n) time when O(1) unique keys.

This algorithm partitions the array into three parts:
1. one with is less than pivot
2. equal to pivot
3. one with elements greater than the pivot

3-way quicksort

3-way quicksort Implementation

import java.util.Arrays;
import java.util.Stack;
 * Created by sangar on 18.9.18.
public class StockSpan {
    public static int[] stockSpan(int[] prices){
        Stack<Integer> s = new Stack();
        int[] span = new int[prices.length];
        //Step 1. Initialization
        span[0] = 1;
        for(int i=1; i<prices.length; i++){
            //Find the price on stack which is greater than current day's price
            while(!s.empty() && prices[i] > prices[s.peek()])
                span[i] = i+1;
                span[i] =  i - s.peek();
            //Push current day onto top of stack
        return span;
    public static void main(String args[]){
        int prices[] = {100, 60, 70, 65, 80, 85, 45, 77, 56, 98, 200};
        int[] span = stockSpan(prices);

The complexity of 3-way quicksort is O(n2).

Please share if something is wrong or any other suggestion or query. We would love to hear what you have to say.

Find Kth smallest element in array

Given an array of integers which is non sorted, find kth smallest element in that array. For example: if input array is A = [3,5,1,2,6,9,7], 4th smallest element in array A is 5, because if you sort the array A, it looks like A = [1,2,3,5,6,7,9] and now you can easily see that 4th element is 5.

Companies asked in

This problem is commonly asked in Microsoft and Amazon interviews as it has multiple layers and there are some many things that can be tested with this one problem.

Kth smallest element : Line of thought

First of all, in any interview, try to come up with brute force solution. Brute force solution to find Kth smallest element in array of integers would be to sort the array and return A[k-1] element (K-1 as array is zero base indexed).

What is the complexity of brute force solution? It’s O(n2)? Well, we have sort algorithms like merge sort and heap sort which work in O(nlogn) complexity.

The problem with both searches is that they use additional space. Quick sort is another sorting algorithm. It has problem that it’s worst-case complexity will be O(n2), which happens when input is completely sorted.
In our case, the input is given as unsorted already, so we can expect that quicksort will function with O(n log n) complexity which is its average-case complexity. Advantage of using quicksort is that there is no additional space complexity.

Optimising quick sort

Let’s see how quicksort works and see if we can optimize solution further?
Idea behind quicksort is to find the correct place for the selected pivot. Once the pivot is at the correct position, all the elements on the left side of the pivot are smaller and on the right side of the pivot are greater than the pivot. This step is partitioning.

If after partitioning, pivot is at position j, can we say that pivot is actually jth smallest element of the array? What if j is equal to k? Well problem solved, we found the kth smallest element.

If j is less than k, left subarray is less than k, we need to include more elements from right subarray, therefore kth smallest element is in right subarray somewhere. We have already found j smallest elements, all we need to find is k-j elements from right subarray.

What if j is greater than k? In this case, we have to drop some elements from left subarray, so our search space would be left subarray after partition.

Theoretically, this algorithm still has the complexity of O(n log n), but practically, you do not need to sort the entire array before you find k smallest elements.

If you are preparing for a technical interview and need personal coaching along with mock interviews, book a free demo session with us

Algorithm to find Kth smallest element in array

  1. Select a pivot and partition the array with pivot at correct position j
  2. If position of pivot, j, is equal to k, return A[j].
  3. If j is less than k, discard array from start to j, and look for (k-j)th smallest element in right sub array, go to step 1.
  4. If j is greater than k, discard array from j to end and look for kth element in left subarray, go to step 1

Let’s take an example and see if this algorithm works? A =  [4, 2, 1, 7, 5, 3, 8, 10, 9, 6 ], and we have to find fifth smallest element in array A.

Kth smallest element in array

Start with pivot as first index of array, so pivot = 0, partition the array into two parts around pivot such that all elements on left side of pivot element, i.e. A[pivot] are smaller and all elements on right side are greater than A[pivot].

Start with pivot as first index of array, so pivot = 0, partition the array into two parts around pivot such that all elements on left side of pivot element, i.e. A[pivot] are smaller and all elements on right side are greater than A[pivot].

In our example, array A will look like below after pivot has found it’s the correct position.

kth smallest element
After partition, correct position of pivot is index 3

If pivot == k-1 (array is represented as zero base index), then A[pivot] is kth smallest element. Since pivot (3) is less than k-1 (4), look for kth smallest element on right side of the pivot.

k remains as it is as opposed to k-j mentioned in algorithm as pivot is given w.r.t entire array and not w.r.t subarray.

In second iteration, pivot = 4 (index and not element). After second execution of quick sort array A will be like

kth smallest element
After partition of right subarray, correct position of pivot is index 4

pivot(4) which is equal to k-1(5-1). 5th smallest element in array A is 5.



	* Created by sangar on 30.9.18.
public class KthSmallest {
	private void swap(int[] a, int i, int j){
		int temp = a[i];
		a[i] = a[j];
		a[j] = temp;
	private int partition(int[] a, int start, int end){
		int pivot = a[start];
		int i  = start+1;
		int j  = end;

		while(i <= j){
			while(a[i] < pivot) i++;
			while(a[j] > pivot) j--;

			if(i < j) {
				swap(a, i, j);
		swap(a, start, j);
		return j;

	public int findKthSmallestElement(int a[], int start, 
				int end, int k){
		if(start <= end){
		int p = partition(a, start, end);
		if(p == k-1){
			return a[p];
		if(p > k-1)
			return findKthSmallestElement(a, start, p, k);
		if(p < k-1)
			return findKthSmallestElement(a, p+1, end, k);
		return -1;
Test cases
package test;

import org.junit.jupiter.api.Test;

import static org.junit.jupiter.api.Assertions.assertEquals;

 * Created by sangar on 28.8.18.
public class KthSmallestTest {

	KthSmallest tester = new KthSmallest();
	private int[] a = {4, 2, 1, 7, 5, 3, 8, 10, 9};
	public void kthSmallest() {
		assertEquals(7, tester.findKthSmallestElement(a,0,8,6));

	public void firstSmallest() {
		assertEquals(1, tester.findKthSmallestElement(a,0,8,1));

	public void lastSmallest() {
		assertEquals(10, tester.findKthSmallestElement(a,0,8,9));

	public void kGreaterThanSize() {
		assertEquals(-1, tester.findKthSmallestElement(a,0,8,15));
	public void emptyArray() {
		int[] a = {};
		assertEquals(-1, tester.findKthSmallestElement(a,0,0,1));

	public void nullArray() {
		assertEquals(-1, tester.findKthSmallestElement(null,0,0,1));

Complexity of using quicksort algorithm to find the kth smallest element in the array of integers is still O(n logn).

Kth smallest element using heaps

Before going into details of this problem, I strongly recommend reading heap fundamentals.

Imagine a case where there are a billion integers in the array and you have to find 5 smallest elements from that array. The complexity of O(n log n) is too costly for that use case. Above algorithm using quicksort does not take into consideration disparity between k and n.

We want top k elements, how about we chose those k elements randomly, call it set A and then go through all other n-k elements, call it set B, check if element from set B (n-k elements) can displace element in set A (k elements)?

What will be the condition for an element from set B to replace an element in set A? Well, if the new element is less than maximum in set A than the maximum in set A cannot be in the set of k smallest elements right?  Maximum element in set A would be replaced by the new element from set B.

Now, the problem is how to quickly find the maximum out of set A. Heap is the best data structure there. What kind of heap: min heap or max heap? Max heap as it store the maximum of the set at the root of it.

Let’s defined concrete steps to find k smallest elements using a max heap. 

  1. Create a max heap of size k from first k elements of array.
  2. Scan all elements in array one by one.
    1.  If current element is less than max on heap, add current element to heap and heapify.
    2. If not, then go to next element.
  3. At the end, max heap will contain k smallest elements of array and root will be kth smallest element.

Let’s take an example and see if this algorithm works? The input array is shown below and we have to find the 6th smallest element in this array.

kth smallest element
input array

Step 1 : Create a max heap with first 6 elements of array.

Create a max heap with set A

Step 2: Take the next element from set B and check if it is less than the root of max heap. In this case, yes it is. Remove the root and insert the new element into max heap.

kth largest element
Element from set B removes root from max heap and added to max heap

Step 2: It continues to 10, nothing happens as the new element is greater than the root of max heap. Same for 9.  At 6, again the root of max heap is greater than 6. Remove the root and add 6 to max heap.

nth smallest number in an integer array
Again, new element from set B is less than root of max heap. Root is removed and new element is added.

Array scan is finished, so just return the root of the max heap, 6 which is the sixth smallest element in given array.


	public int findKthSmallestElementUsingHeap(int a[], int k){

	PriorityQueue<Integer>  maxHeap =
			new PriorityQueue<>(k, Collections.reverseOrder());

		if(a == null || k > a.length) return -1;
		//Create max with first k elements
		for(int i=0; i<k; i++){

		/*Keep updating max heap based on a new element
		If new element is less than root, 
		remove root and add new element

		for(int i=k; i<a.length; i++){
			if(maxHeap.peek() > a[i]){
		return maxHeap.peek();

Can you calculate the complexity of above algorithm? heapify() has complexity of log(k) with k elements on heap. In worst case, we have to do heapify() for all elements in array, which is n, so overall complexity of algorithm becomes O(nlogk). Also, there is additional space complexity of O(k) to store heap.
When is very small as compared to n, this algorithm again depends on the size of array.

We want k smallest elements, if we pick first k elements from a min heap, will it solve the problem? I think so. Create a min heap of n elements in place from the given array, and then pick first k elements.
Creation of heap has complexity of O(n), do more reading on it. All we need to do is delete k times from this heap, each time there will be heapify(). It will have complexity of O(log n) for n element heap. So, overall complexity would be O(n + klogn).

Depending on what you want to optimize, select correct method to find kth smallest element in array.

Please share if there is something wrong or missing. If you are interested in taking coaching sessions from our experienced teachers, please reach out to us at [email protected]