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How To Become A Penetration Tester

Penetration testing, also known as ethical hacking, is a fascinating field in cybersecurity that involves simulating cyber attacks to identify vulnerabilities in a company’s systems, applications, and networks. As more and more businesses rely on technology, the need for skilled penetration testers has grown rapidly. In this article, we will discuss some of the possible steps that can be taken to become a penetration tester, the skills and experience required, and the job outlook and career growth. It should be noted that the path to being a professional penetration tester is varied, and can look and feel vastly different for different people. In the end, organizations want skilled technologists with demonstrable mastery of the tactics, techniques, and procedures in use by attackers.

What Do Penetration Testers Do?

Penetration testers are hired by companies to simulate cyber attacks on their systems, networks, facilities, and applications to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses before malicious attackers can exploit them. They use a combination of manual techniques and automated tools to test the security posture of the organization and provide recommendations on how to improve it. Penetration testers have the skills of adaptation, improvisation, and critical thinking and often think like hackers to identify and exploit vulnerabilities. Their goal is to help organizations strengthen their security posture and protect against real-world threats.

Is the Job Difficult?

Becoming a penetration tester is not an easy task. It requires a unique set of skills, including technical expertise, creativity, problem-solving, and communication skills. Additionally, the job is highly demanding and involves working under pressure and tight deadlines.

General Roles and Responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities of a penetration tester may vary depending on the company’s size and structure. However, some of the most common responsibilities include the following:

  • Conducting vulnerability assessments and penetration testing
  • Creating and executing test plans
  • Providing recommendations and remediation advice
  • Conducting social engineering tests
  • Analyzing security logs and reports
  • Staying up-to-date with the latest hacking techniques and tools
  • Writing reports and documenting findings
  • Conducting risk assessments and threat modeling
  • Collaborating with cross-functional teams

Skills and Experience

To become a successful penetration tester, you need a combination of hard and soft skills. In terms of experience, some employers require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field and some relevant experience. Many organizations place a premium on candidates’ proven technical acumen demonstrated through their results in cyber-centric capture the flag events (CTFs), their github repositories, or their relevant technical certifications related to pentesting and cybersecurity (such as OSCP by Offsec, or eJPTv2 by eLearnSecurity, or CRTO by ZeroPointSecurity).    

Hard Skills

Hard skills refer to the technical and specific knowledge required for a particular job or profession. In the case of penetration testing, there are several hard skills that are necessary for a professional to be effective in their job. These include 

  • Knowledge of operating systems, networking, and web applications
  • Familiarity with penetration testing tools and frameworks
  • Proficiency in scripting languages such as Python or Bash
  • Understanding of cryptography and encryption
  • Ability to read and write code
  • Strong analytical and problem-solving skills

Soft Skills

In addition to technical skills, a penetration tester would need soft skills to communicate effectively and work collaboratively with others. These soft skills include

  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills
  • Ability to present findings from a penetration test both in writing and verbally 
  • Creative thinking and attention to detail
  • Ability to work under pressure and tight deadlines
  • Ethical mindset and high integrity
  • Strong work ethics and team spirit
  • Adaptability and flexibility

How to Become a Tester

Becoming a penetration tester requires a combination of technical knowledge, practical skills, and relevant certifications. Here, in no particular order, we’ll go through some helpful steps for becoming a successful penetration tester.

Start with a Technical-based Education

A technical education in computer science, IT, information architecture, cybersecurity, and any other relevant tech background would be suitable for someone considering penetration testing. This education could be from academia, from free  online resources, bootcamps, technical programs and schools, or internships. Getting a foundational and theoretical understanding behind the concepts involved with using (and abusing) technology can be very helpful.   

Get Hands-On Training

Hands-on training is critical for developing practical skills in penetration testing. This could include training in ethical hacking, web application testing, and other relevant topics. Working through bug bounty programs is a great way to get practical, hands-on training and experience. Also, many not-for-profits working with current organizations have programs that allow people the opportunity to help in performing pentests on their partners. Further, sometimes companies where people currently work are interested in allowing those employees to cross train on cybersecurity projects. There are a myriad of low-cost and free practical training resources available on the Internet that are also great resources to learn technology stacks and how to identify and abuse weaknesses within them. 

Consider Taking Additional Courses

There are many courses that a penetration tester can take to increase their knowledge of the field, such as courses in

  • Network security
  • Wireless security
  • Cloud security
  • Reverse engineering
  • Malware analysis
  • Exploit development
  • Social engineering
  • Operating system and device hardening
  • Cryptography
  • Incident response and digital forensics

Obtain the Most Relevant Certifications 

As a penetration tester, there are many certifications that can help validate your knowledge, skills, and experience in the field. These certifications demonstrate to potential employers and clients that you have taken the time to study, and have persisted with, and mastered, the material within the certification training. Combining certifications with relevant real-world or hands-on experience and practical exercises helps present you as a well-rounded technologist.  

Here are nine of the most relevant certifications for penetration testers:

  • Offensive security certified professional (OSCP)
  • Zero-Point Security Certified red team operator (CRTO)
  • eLearnSecurity Junior Penetration Tester v2 (eJPTv2) 
  • TCM Security’s Practical Network Penetration Tester (PNPT)
  • SANS GIAC penetration tester (GPEN)
  • NICCS Certified penetration testing engineer (CPTE) 
  • Certified expert penetration tester (CEPT)
  • EC-Council Licensed penetration tester (LPT)
  • EC-Council Certified ethical hacker (CEH)

Get Real Work Experience with Internships or a Full-Time Job

Internships or full-time jobs in the cybersecurity field can provide valuable experience for aspiring penetration testers. For example, working in IT support or network administration can provide a solid foundation for a career in penetration testing.

Keep Up to Date with the Latest in Pentesting

It’s essential to stay current with the latest trends and techniques in penetration testing. Here are some valuable resources that can help individuals stay informed about cybersecurity-related topics:

  • SANS Institute: A leading provider of cybersecurity training, certification, and research, SANS offers a range of resources on penetration testing and other security-related topics
  • Dark Reading: A cybersecurity news site that covers the latest threats, vulnerabilities, and security technologies, as well as providing insights and analysis from industry experts
  • Krebs on Security: Written by cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs, this blog provides in-depth reporting and analysis of the latest cyber threats, as well as offering practical advice for protecting against them
  • OWASP: The open web application security project (OWASP) is a non-profit organization that provides free resources on application security, including tools, guides, and best practices for web application testing and development
  • Hack The Box: An online platform that offers a variety of vulnerable machines and challenges to help individuals develop and test their penetration testing skills
  • SecurityTube: A popular online community for security professionals, SecurityTube offers free training, videos, and certification programs on a range of security-related topics, including penetration testing

Companies That Hire Penetration Testers

There are many companies that hire penetration testers to identify and assess vulnerabilities in their computer systems, networks, and applications. 

Some examples of companies that commonly hire penetration testers include

  • Technology companies: Technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple frequently hire penetration testers to test their products and services for security vulnerabilities
  • Financial institutions: Banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions are highly targeted by cyber criminals, so they often hire penetration testers to assess and improve the security of their systems and data
  • Consulting firms: Consulting firms that specialize in cybersecurity, such as Deloitte, PwC, and KPMG, hire penetration testers to perform assessments for their clients
  • Government agencies: Government agencies at all levels (local, state, and federal) hire penetration testers to assess the security of their systems and networks
  • Healthcare organizations: Healthcare organizations, such as hospitals and health insurance companies, hold a significant amount of sensitive data, making them an attractive target for cyber criminals. They often hire penetration testers to identify and address vulnerabilities in their systems
  • Retailers: Retailers, especially those that operate online stores, are frequent targets of cyber attacks. They often hire penetration testers to identify and address vulnerabilities in their systems and networks
  • Gaming companies: Gaming companies, such as Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, hire penetration testers to assess the security of their online gaming platforms

These are just a few examples of the types of companies that hire penetration testers. Many other industries and organizations also rely on the expertise of ethical hackers to protect their systems and data from cyber threats.

Examples of Daily Tasks 

As a penetration tester, the daily tasks can vary depending on the project, the organization, and the specific role. However, there are some common tasks that a penetration tester may perform on a typical day. Some of these tasks may include

  • Conducting vulnerability assessments: This involves running scans and assessments to identify vulnerabilities in a system or network
  • Performing penetration testing: Penetration testers attempt to exploit vulnerabilities in a system to see how far an attacker could get into the system
  • Analyzing results: After conducting tests and assessments, a penetration tester must analyze the results to identify vulnerabilities and determine the potential impact of those vulnerabilities
  • Reporting findings: Penetration testers must document their findings in a clear and concise manner, making sure to provide recommendations on how to remediate the vulnerabilities that were discovered
  • Collaborating with team members: Penetration testers often work in teams, so daily tasks may include collaborating with team members to coordinate testing and share findings
  • Staying up-to-date on industry developments: The world of cybersecurity is constantly changing, so a penetration tester must stay up-to-date on the latest threats, vulnerabilities, and security trends
  • Researching new tools and techniques: Penetration testers must also stay current with the latest tools and techniques used to test for vulnerabilities
  • Participating in training and professional development: To keep their skills sharp and stay current with industry standards and best practices, penetration testers may also attend training sessions and professional development opportunities

Career Information

Penetration testing is a critical aspect of cybersecurity, and it has become an increasingly popular career choice for those interested in helping organizations protect their assets and data from cyber threats. From a career perspective, there are many benefits to pursuing a career in penetration testing. The job outlook for penetration testers is promising, with a growing demand for professionals with expertise in this field. Additionally, penetration testing is a field that offers ample opportunities for career growth and advancement.

Penetration Tester Salary

Penetration testing is a well-paid career in the IT industry, with salaries varying based on experience and job responsibilities. Entry-level penetration testers can expect to earn an average of $60,000 to $80,000 per year. As they gain more experience and take on more complex projects, mid-level testers can earn an average of $90,000 to $120,000 per year. Senior-level penetration testers with many years of experience and proven expertise can earn up to $150,000 or more annually.

Penetration Testing Job Outlook in 2023

The job outlook for penetration testers in 2023 is positive with the need for skilled cybersecurity professionals on the rise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of information security analysts, which includes penetration testers, will grow by 33 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. This demand is driven by the increasing number of cyberattacks and data breaches, as well as the need for companies to comply with ever-changing data protection laws.

Career Growth

Penetration testing is a viable career path with opportunities for growth and advancement. Starting as an entry-level tester, professionals can work their way up to team leader or even department manager with the right combination of experience, skills, and certifications. They can also specialize in specific areas of penetration testing, such as mobile application or web application security, and become subject matter experts in those fields.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Penetration Tester?

The journey to becoming a penetration tester varies greatly from person to person. Some start with schooling before a career — getting degrees in computer science/engineering, math, or information systems (or similar paths) — and progress into internships and jobs related to technology or cybersecurity. Other people are career shifters, taking on bootcamps, self-study, or even going back to school to garner enough experience to be considered for technical jobs or jobs in penetration testing. It can be very beneficial to have jobs in technology adjacent fields that are not directly in the pentesting arena, to learn technology concepts and hone skills. It can take time to gain the necessary skills and experience to become proficient in the field. Aspiring penetration testers may spend a few years working in related positions, such as network or system administrator, to gain hands-on experience and build a solid technical foundation. Others may get a chance to go directly from training into more junior roles. Regardless of the path chosen, finding one that works for you and trying to move forward, both in your career and in your understanding of technology, is the way to go.

So, Should You Consider Becoming a Penetration Tester?

In conclusion, becoming a penetration tester is an exciting and rewarding career that requires a unique blend of technical and soft skills. The job can be challenging, but it also offers excellent job security, high salaries, and opportunities for growth and advancement. For those who are passionate about cybersecurity and enjoy solving complex problems, becoming a penetration tester may be the perfect career path.

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