How to Become a Penetration Tester

Sep 14, 2021

7 Min Read

To put it simply, penetration hackers are the employees who are acting as hackers to expose the flaws in the security. People who perform this job are also called ethical hackers and assurance validators. They are usually the employees of network system proprietors and companies that build online applications. By exposing the flaws in the security system, they prevent malicious hackers from breaking in.

Individuals with solid hacking skills can test the system’s vulnerability by using their background knowledge. Ethical hackers are handsomely compensated for their efforts.

They use a wide variety of tools and approaches to breach the system. In addition, they are experts at finding the gaps in the security protocols.

The concept of penetration test involves attempting to get through security firewalls and penetrating the company’s security system. Businesses pay these people to demonstrate the flaws in their systems before they’re exposed to real hackers’ attacks. 

All of this costs a lot of money. The only ones who can afford the services of pen testers are people working on highly secretive projects. Anyone working in this position must be discrete and able to work under challenging conditions. Personal skills like innovativeness and the ability to think outside the box are also nice to have. Ethical hackers must also be diligent enough to note and report everything they discover throughout their analysis.

Six prerequisites for a successful penetration tester career

Awareness of your skills: Most people are not suited for a job in this field. To be an ethical hacker, you must have the ability to make decisions on the spot, be diligent, and be willing to learn all the time. Achieving any form of success as a penetration tester will be hard if you lack the necessary skills. Take a good look at your personality and preferences before you decide to pursue this career.

Relevant degree: In the past, labor supplies were scarce, and many corporations paid real hackers to work for them in a penetration tester role. In the past decade, colleges have caught up with demand and started to offer relevant degrees, which are now necessary to become a penetration tester. Undergrad degrees that focus on cybersecurity are a good starting point for someone who wishes to find work as a penetration tester. 

Getting started: You can use numerous approaches to get your first pen tester job. For example, you can get an entry-level position in security administration, network management, or any of the entry-level cybersecurity jobs. Throughout your job, continue to learn hacking techniques and stay focused on becoming a pentester. 

Accreditations: Companies are often looking for pen testers with specialized education and accreditations. This is essential for getting a highly paid job in the industry. Fortunately, there are educational institutions where aspiring penetration hackers can earn certificates.

Constant learning: These days, any professional is expected to stay up to date on the news in their industry. The demands for ethical hackers to stay sharp are exceptionally high. As a tester, you must stay tuned with changes and challenges in the cybersecurity industry. 

Stay alert: Cybersecurity is an evolving field, so any professional working in this field must be aware of new developments in the industry. For example, a good penetration tester must know about recent changes in security disciplines, new software development approaches, and new hacking methods. You must also learn about hackers’ tools and the potential weaknesses of security protocols. 

What is a penetration tester?

You can think of this profession as a private detective of the cybersecurity industry. Just like many undercover operations, pen testers are employed to detect potential threats before they are realized. 

Cybersecurity is a treacherous field, so it’s always safe to assume that malicious hackers will try to breach your security systems at one point or another. That’s why a responsible company must hire penetration testers to detect the threats and resolve them before they occur. This job might entail testing the security of your network systems and web apps.

While ethical hackers are working hard to fill the security gaps, malicious hackers are also working hard to find new ways to overcome the obstacles. This competition is mainly responsible for fast development in both fields. 

Ethical hackers attack the security protocols to save them. By acting as malicious hackers, pen testers expose the vulnerabilities in a system. Once these vulnerabilities are detected, they report them to be fixed. As a result, the protocols become safer and more resistant to real hackers.

Penetration tester skills and experience

When hiring pen testers, employers have a core set of expectations that are the same across the board. However, the requirements might change based on the specifics or seniority of the job. Entry-level penetration testers are not expected to work at the level of senior workers. Their day-to-day tasks involve the completion of more straightforward tasks.

To work in a Medium and high seniority position, you must have a track record of success on and off the job. In these positions, employers often expect to hire someone with a degree in information security or other technical fields. Sometimes you need a master’s degree in a more specialized field to work in a senior role.

When hiring pen testers, employers also value experience in software development fields. Of course, working experience in fields that are directly related to penetration testing is advantageous. 

The employers are likely to require the following skills:

Mastery of programming languages, such as:

  • Python
  • Powershell 
  • Golang
  • Bash

Familiarity with network operating systems, Windows/Linux/macOS, conventions for communication data sharing, defensive firewalls, IPS/IDS systems, virtual OS systems, encrypting all types of data, testing smartphone applications and network systems.

Mastery of the following penetration testing instruments:

  • Kali
  • Metasploit
  • Burpsuite
  • Wireshark
  • Web Inspect
  • Network Mapper (NMAP)
  • Nessus and others

Employers often look for accreditations from official organizations, namely: IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers), OSCP (Offensive Security Certified Professional), SANS Technology Institute, GIAC (Global Information Assurance Certification), and EC-Council.

Personal traits are just as important as hard technical skills. Employers often look for: strong ability to convey your thoughts, the capacity to take the initiative, and think outside the box. Working on open source initiatives and prize competitions also doesn’t hurt. You should have a good grasp of OWASP’s Top 10 security problems. 

What are the responsibilities?

A general framework of job responsibilities of penetrative testers includes building threat models, assessments of security, core concepts of ethical hacking, and web app development.

To be precise, ethical hackers must perform one or more of these job duties:

  • Collect and summarize the information regarding OSINT to locate gaps in the system. 
  • Use your experience of working as a penetration tester to detect insufficient defensive protocols used by the company. 
  • Assess security protocols and mechanisms used at the company using simple as well as complex methodologies.
  • Come up with new programming mechanisms to improve testing protocols. 
  • Look out for potential engagements and primary engagements from the very beginning to the final stages.
  • Perform social engineering tests and challenge physical security systems.
  • Inspect physical and signal-based networks to detect gaps in security.
  • Inspect the test outcomes to develop a complete outcome analysis based on the systems and general operational characteristics.
  • Point out the reasons behind technical and other research results.
  • Release a report that points out the results of the examination and proposes necessary changes. 
  • Analyzing the research patterns and construct a useful, constructive message based on this information.
  • Once the research is over, document the methodologies and results of your research.
  • Work with the ISOs to fix the vulnerabilities in your system.
  • Enhance the effectiveness of penetration testing methods to improve their likelihood of success in resolving the vulnerabilities.

Penetration tester job description

The responsibilities of a pen tester depend on their experience and the specific requirements of the employer. As a result, sometimes entry-level penetration testers should look at senior-level ethical hackers to gain insight into their everyday tasks in the future. 

  • Take charge of the ethical hacking initiatives involving corporate and system tests. Document the results and resolve security risks.
  • Use penetration testing methodologies on systems, web apps, and protocols used throughout the company.
  • Test the technical vulnerabilities using manual techniques. Write summarized and expanded reports based on testing methodologies and the results.
  • Perform undercover Red Team Cyber tests to imitate malicious hackers’ methodologies. Then, cooperate with a Purple Team to implement the resolutions to security problems. 
  • Write the report about the outcomes of your research to other staff in the department. 
  • OSCP, GPEN, or GXPN accreditations are nice to have.

Penetration testing operations must be strengthened when dealing with classified information. We’ve found a job description posted by the leading supplier of military equipment. They’re looking for an ethical hacker for a senior-level position:

  • Experiment with security systems to detect the risks in the code. This involves testing the security of web apps and locally hosted applications. 
  • Communicate the deductions based on your test experiments to heads of departments. 
  • Have experience in writing exploit code, divert the AV system, and emulate the hackers’ attacks.
  • Analyze the immediate threats to customer’s system security and resolve them.
  • Provide aid to the customers in resolving security threats. 
  • Keeping up with the trends and maintaining an awareness of what tools, methodologies to use. Have an understanding of malicious methods threatening the security of the data.
  • Aid the incident response teams in resolving the threats to the system.
  • Supervise the entry-level professionals by checking the quality of their performance and explaining the essential concepts necessary for strengthening the system security.

Prospects for professionals in this field

The labor demand for cyber security professionals is unlikely to decrease any time soon. Almost all companies lack penetration testers, and the shortage will not be resolved in the decades to come. 

Protecting data is of utmost importance. State and private organizations rely on data to operate successfully. The organizations hire penetration testers to counter the threats posed by malicious hackers. Unfortunately, experienced, ethical hackers are hard to come by and highly valued. Good professionals in this field are always going to be needed.

How much do penetration testers make?

According to Payscale.com data for the year 2019, the annual salary of penetration testers falls between $55,000 to $133,000. Randomly picked professionals will be making roughly $82,000, excluding various bonuses and extra payments, which usually add up to $17,000.

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