Penetration testers are ethical hackers who attempt to breach an organization’s digital systems to improve its security posture. They are hired by organizations to probe vulnerabilities in their security systems that could be exploited by malicious agents. Penetration testers, or assurance validators, simulate cyberattacks on computer networks so that they can identify system vulnerabilities before criminal hackers can.
Penetration testers—often shortened to pen testers—are an integral part of any organization’s digital security team. Their hacking expertise is necessary to prevent future cyberattacks that may cause serious financial, legal, and reputation losses for the company. According to a large-scale investigative report by IBM, the average cost of a data breach in 2021 is higher than ever before. As a result, skilled penetration testers are some of the most highly sought-after digital security professionals in the world today. Based on statistics released by The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of information security analysts—including penetration testers—is projected to grow 31% from 2019 to 2029.
As cyberattacks continue to grow in scale and complexity, penetration testers need to master sophisticated technical skills to secure an organization’s information systems. Here is a comprehensive guide to the role—including key skills, job responsibilities, and six steps to help you become a penetration tester.
What Is a Penetration Tester?
Penetration testers are hackers who test, modify, and execute data breach techniques with complete authorization from the employing organization. Their primary objective is to find ways to break or bypass the company’s security network. Organizations routinely hire pen testers to identify critical flaws in their IT security strategy. The insights generated from these ethical hacking practices help organizations secure their digital assets in the long run. Industries that handle large amounts of personal, proprietary, sensitive, or classified information on a regular basis tend to employ the most penetration testers.
Pen testers constantly look for innovative ways to breach security protocols—similar to how a malicious hacker may approach the task. Once a weak point in network security has been identified, pen testers document the hacking process and provide suggestions for countering similar attacks in the future. A penetration tester job description also includes regular engagement with teams of security consultants, vulnerability analysts, and compliance analysts.
Required Penetration Tester Skills
Penetration testers use a combination of automatic tools and custom scripts to detect security vulnerabilities in the system. When existing hacking strategies are not enough to carry out a data breach, pen testers must devise their own tools. To be successful in the role, penetration testers need advanced knowledge of the following frameworks:
- Programming languages, particularly Java, Python, BASH, Perl, and Ruby
- Windows, Linux, and MacOS operating systems
- Penetration testing tools such as Metasploit, Wireshark, and Burp Suite
- Latest remote access technologies
- Data encryption techniques
- Threat modeling and cyber security assessment tools
- Network forensics tools such as NetIntercept, NetDetector, and OmniPeek
- Network protocols like TCP/IP, DNS, ARP, and UDP
- Technical writing and documentation
What Does a Penetration Tester Do?
Although the day-to-day responsibilities of a penetration tester can change from one industry to the next, there are some core functions they must perform. Typical tasks of a penetration tester include:
- Planning, designing, and executing penetration tests and threat simulations
- Performing social engineering attacks on network devices, applications, and cloud infrastructures
- Developing tools and methodologies to improve testing strategies
- Reverse engineering malware, ransomware, and other security threats
- Drafting detailed technical reports that document the findings
- Drafting executive reports that include recommendations for countermeasures
- Being well-informed about the latest trends in cybersecurity and offensive hacking
- Working with other cybersecurity teams and IT personnel to enhance organizational security
- Communicating outcomes and remediation plans to stakeholders and the executive leadership
How To Become a Penetration Tester in 6 Steps
A variety of career paths can lead you to the position of a penetration tester for an organization. When looking to hire a penetration tester, employers take account of the candidate’s technical expertise, educational qualifications and certifications, private projects, and soft skills. Here are six essential steps you need to follow to become a penetration tester:
1. Build Programming and Hacking Skills
Penetration testers must have a solid understanding of enterprise cybersecurity systems and tools that can be used to breach them. This expertise needs to be built over time with considerable personal efforts and dedication. You will have to devote time to study the protocols used by new security software packages and ways to exploit their vulnerabilities. You need to continually educate yourself on the latest trends in network and application security, threat modeling, and cryptography.
2. Get a Degree or Enroll in a Training Program
Although a bachelor’s degree is not strictly necessary to become a pen tester, most organizations prefer to hire individuals with a college education. You can either rely on a Computer Science major to gain foundational knowledge or take specialized hacking courses to build software skills. If attending college is not an option, you can enroll in a training program to learn about the tools and techniques of ethical hacking in a structured environment. Taking online certification courses is also a great way to start building pen testing skills with no prior experience.
3. Gain Hands-On Experience at an Entry-Level Job
Typically, it takes one to four years of work experience in the cybersecurity industry to land your first job as a penetration tester. You need to gain a comprehensive understanding of data protection and open source security tools before you can advance to a highly specialized role in penetration testing. You can start by working in lower-level IT positions like security administrator, network administrator, network engineer, or web-based application engineer. These jobs will help you learn more about the specific strengths and weaknesses of security strategies used by businesses.
4. Build Expertise With Diverse Projects
Once you have mastered the basics of the craft, you need to find ways to improve your resume and stand out from the crowd. Practicing in both real and simulated environments will help you gain practical experience outside of the workplace. Consider participating in bug bounty programs, in which companies offer cash bonuses to independent pen testers who can find bugs or security flaws in their code. Additionally, developing proprietary attack programs and collecting open-source intelligence (OSINT) will help you get recognized in the pen testing community.
5. Earn Professional Certifications
A professional certificate provides solid evidence of your skills to recruiters and hiring managers. Many reputable organizations offer highly sought-after penetration testing credentialing programs, both online and offline. The most widely-recognized certifications include:
- Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
- Licensed Penetration Tester (LPT)
- Certified Expert Penetration Tester (CEPT)
- CompTIA PenTest+
- Certified Mobile and Web Application Penetration Tester (CMWAPT)
- Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)
You’ll need to pass one or more exams to obtain most of these certificates. It might also be necessary to obtain several of these certifications, especially if you are applying for a senior position.
6. Transition Into Penetration Testing
With a few years of experience and a range of technical skills under your belt, you can start looking for your first penetration testing job. You can use popular job sites like Indeed, ZipRecruiter, and LinkedIn or specialized cybersecurity job boards such as Cleared Jobs and Dice to look for open positions. The job of a penetration tester also offers excellent upward mobility with roles like IT security architect, security consultant, and cybersecurity manager.
Is cybersecurity the right career for you?
According to Cybersecurity Ventures, the cybersecurity industry is expected to have 3.5 million high-paying, unfilled jobs this year. With Springboard’s comprehensive Cyber Security Career Track, you’ll work 1:1 with an industry-mentor to learn key aspects of information technology, security software, security auditing, and finding and fixing malicious code. Learning units include subject-expert approved resources, application-based mini-projects, hands-on labs, and career-search related coursework.
The course will culminate in a multi-part capstone project that you can highlight on your resume for prospective employers or use to demonstrate your technical knowledge in your job interview. The learning materials will also help prepare you to pass the globally-recognized CompTIA Security+ certification so you stand out when applying for cybersecurity roles.
Learn more about Springboard’s Cyber Security Career Track here.