Editor’s Note: We earn a commission from affiliate links on Forbes Advisor. Commissions do not affect the opinions or ratings of our editors.
Often referred to as “penetration testers,” ethical hackers work for a variety of organizations to test their network security measures against potential external threats and malicious actors.
As more and more organizations rely on data and AI to perform their day-to-day operations, strong information technology (IT) defenses become increasingly important. If hacking for the greater good piques your curiosity, here’s what you should know about becoming a penetration tester.
What is a penetration tester?
Penetration testing is a career in cybersecurity that involves conducting simulated cyberattacks on an organization’s network and web-based applications. Penetration testers’ primary responsibilities can include evaluating current firewalls and other defenses, conducting analysis of security systems and data storage locations, and providing recommendations on how to improve an organization’s digital security.
While penetration testers are ethical hackers (ie, “white hat” hackers), the key to testing an organization’s defenses is thinking like a malicious (ie, “black hat”) hacker. As a penetration tester, you need to put yourself in a hacker’s shoes to consider all possible entry points, gaps, and vulnerabilities in an organization’s security system.
A penetration tester’s value lies both in the services they provide and the problems they help prevent, from the loss of customer data to the disclosure of trade secrets.
Top skills for penetration testers
To be successful as a penetration tester, you should have both technical and creative skills.
Malicious hackers create new malware—software that harms computer systems—and tools that can penetrate an organization’s defenses as quickly as organizations implement new security measures. Penetration testers must be able to think creatively about how a hacker might attempt to penetrate a web application or data storage system.
Penetration testers also need expert communication skills so they can share important information about how organizations can protect themselves from external threats.
At the same time, penetration testers need to be aware of the latest technological advances so they can adequately test an organization’s defenses. These professionals should have a strong understanding of computer programming languages, data encryption, and application security tools. Many penetration testers already have professional experience in IT security as a software developer, software engineer or network administrator.
How to become a penetration tester
Becoming a penetration tester can be time-consuming and involves significant effort, as cybersecurity job requirements typically include education, experience, and certification.
Get an education
The first step to becoming a penetration tester is to earn a bachelor’s degree or attend a cybersecurity boot camp.
A bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity or a related field will provide you with the foundational knowledge and skills needed for a penetration testing career.
Alternatively, a boot camp can prepare you to become a penetration tester. For example, INFOSEC’s penetration testing bootcamp and Code Fellows’ cybersecurity bootcamps train students to be ethical hackers.
You can also consider doing a boot camp even if you already have a bachelor’s degree. This can help you improve your skills and keep up to date with the latest trends and relevant information.
Ultimately, the best way to acquire technical skills is through hands-on experience.
Don’t be surprised if your first role isn’t that of a penetration tester. You could instead start as an entry-level IT auditor, cybercrime analyst, or cybersecurity specialist. Organizations often prefer to hire penetration testers who have a few years of hands-on experience in IT security.
As you learn more about cybersecurity in the workplace, use this time to practice your penetration testing skills. You can do this in your current role, in your free time, or by connecting with other penetration testers on platforms like LinkedIn. The more you can hone your skills and demonstrate your creativity and innovation, the more valuable you become to potential employers.
Earn a certification
Cybersecurity certifications are not required for penetration testers, but they can help you differentiate yourself from your competitors and demonstrate your credentials. Because most certifications require you to pursue continuing education, these credentials demonstrate that you are up to date with the latest information and required skills in the field.
We’ll go into more detail about certifications in the next section.
It’s common to hold other IT or cybersecurity positions before becoming a penetration tester. It takes some professionals a few years or more to work their way up to penetration testing.
Keep up to date with the latest trends by subscribing to online publications, practicing your skills, and networking with other penetration testers and cybersecurity professionals to stay ahead of the curve and learn about job openings. Use both your professional network and online job boards to search for penetration tester jobs.
Penetration tester certifications
Earning a relevant certification can help you improve your technical skills and differentiate yourself from other candidates in the job market. Consider the following certifications if you are pursuing a penetration testing career.
Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)®
Offered by the EC-Council, the CEH certification is among the most respected certifications for penetration testers. During the CEH certification process, you will learn a variety of technical skills and tricks—from new attack vectors to malware reverse engineering—that malicious hackers use to penetrate enterprise security defenses.
The CEH certification also means that while you have the skills of a hacker, you will not use those skills for illegal activities.
CompTIA is an online education provider that offers a variety of cybersecurity certifications, one of the most popular of which is the CompTIA PenTest+ certification.
Unlike some other, more general cybersecurity certifications, the CompTIA PenTest+ designation provides specialized knowledge on how to become a penetration tester and conduct vulnerability assessments. During this certification process, you will learn how to plan, evaluate, implement, and report on penetration testing, as well as useful tools and different attack approaches.
GIAC Penetration Tester (GPEN)
The GPEN certification is one of the more accessible options as it does not specify any specific prerequisites or experience requirements. However, this credential does not count as a novice cybersecurity certification.
As you work toward GPEN certification, you will learn how to conduct penetration testing, including helpful processes you can implement both before and after you conduct a test to best meet stakeholder needs. Cyberseek lists the GPEN certification as one of the most requested certifications for penetration testers.
Penetration tester salary and job prospects
Cybersecurity professionals, including penetration testers, are among the most sought-after professionals today. In fact, there are far more vacancies than skilled professionals, even as the cybersecurity field continues to grow in popularity.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for information security analysts, including penetration testers, will grow 35% from 2021 to 2031 — much faster than the average projected growth rate for all occupations nationwide. As of October 2022, Cyberseek listed penetration and vulnerability testers among the most requested cybersecurity job titles.
According to data collected by Cyberseek, penetration testers make an average annual salary of more than $101,000.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about penetration testers
Is penetration testing a tough job?
Yes, penetration testing can be a challenging role as you need to anticipate a hacker’s actions and find vulnerabilities that others may have missed in an organization’s security system. Penetration testing also requires advanced computer skills, which can take a lot of time and effort to acquire.
What qualifications do you need to become a penetration tester?
Employers typically prefer candidates who have completed a bachelor’s degree or boot camp, along with relevant certification and work experience.
How long does it take to become a penetration tester?
Most professionals find that it takes between one and four years to become an entry-level penetration tester, including entry-level education and work experience.