Jan 3, 2022

How to Become a Penetration Tester: 2022 Career Guide

Pen testers simulate cyberattacks on a company's computer systems and networks. These authorized tests help identify security vulnerabilities and weaknesses before malicious hackers have a chance to exploit them. Penetration testers, or pen testers for short, perform simulated cyberattacks on a company’s computer systems and networks. These authorized tests help identify security vulnerabilities and weaknesses before malicious hackers have the chance to exploit them.

A career as a pen tester often starts with an entry-level cybersecurity position. In this article, we’ll go into more detail about what penetration testers do, why this in-demand cybersecurity career could be a good fit for you, and how to get started.

What does a penetration tester do?

Penetration tester tasks and responsibilities
Where do penetration testers work?
How to become a penetration tester
1. Develop penetration testing skills.
2. Enroll in a course or training program.
3. Get certified.
4. Practice in real and simulated environments.
5. Start in an entry-level IT position.
6. Begin your job search.
Why pursue a career in penetration testing?
Penetration tester salary
Job outlook

Career path for penetration testers
As a penetration tester, you’ll take a proactive, offensive role in cybersecurity by performing attacks on a company’s existing digital systems. These tests might use a variety of hacking tools and techniques to find gaps that hackers could exploit. Throughout the process, you’ll document your actions in detail and create a report on what you did and how successful you were at breaching security protocols.  

The day-to-day tasks of a pen tester will vary depending on the organization. Here are some common tasks and responsibilities you may encounter in this role, all pulled from real job listings:

  • Perform tests on applications, network devices, and cloud infrastructures

  • Design and conduct simulated social engineering attacks

  • Research and experiment with different types of attacks

  • Develop methodologies for penetration testing

  • Review code for security vulnerabilities

  • Reverse engineer malware or spam

  • Document security and compliance issues

  • Automate common testing techniques to improve efficiency

  • Write technical and executive reports

  • Communicate findings to both technical staff and executive leadership

  • Validate security improvements with additional testing

Penetration testers typically work in one of three environments.

  • In-house: As an in-house penetration tester, you work directly for a company or organization. This typically allows you to get to know the company’s security protocols well. You may also have more input into new security features and fixes.

  • Security firm: Some organizations hire an outside security firm to conduct penetration testing. Working for a security firm offers greater variety in the types of tests you’ll get to design and perform. 

  • Freelance: Some penetration testers choose to work as freelancers. Choosing this path can give you greater flexibility in your schedule, but you may need to spend more time looking for clients early in your career.

As a penetration tester, you can earn a paycheck by legally hacking into security systems. It can be a fast-paced, exciting job if you have an interest in cybersecurity and problem-solving. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the steps you might take to get your first job as a penetration tester.

Penetration testers need a solid understanding of information technology (IT) and security systems in order to test them for vulnerabilities. Skills you might find on a pen tester job description include:

  • Network and application security

  • Programming languages, especially for scripting (Python, BASH, Java, Ruby, Perl)

  • Threat modeling

  • Linux, Windows, and MacOS environments

One of the best ways to start developing the skills you’ll need as a penetration tester is to enroll in a specialized course or training program. With these types of programs, you can learn in a more structured environment while building multiple skills at once. 

Cybersecurity certifications demonstrate to recruiters and hiring managers that you have the skills required to succeed in the industry. In addition to these more general cybersecurity certifications, you can also get certified in penetration testing or ethical hacking. Reputable certifications to consider include:

Many companies want to hire penetration testers with previous experience. Luckily, there are ways to start gaining experience outside of the workplace. Many pen testing training programs include hands-on testing in simulated environments.

Another way to gain experience (and make your resume stand out) is to participate in bug bounty programs. In these programs, companies typically offer cash bonuses to independent pen testers and security researchers who find and report security flaws or bugs in their code. It’s an excellent way to test your skills and start networking with other security professionals. You can find a list of bounties on sites like Bugcrowd and HackerOne

Many penetration testers start out in more entry-level IT and cybersecurity roles before advancing into pen testing. If you want to pursue a career in pen testing, consider starting out in a role like network or systems administrator or information security analyst to start building your IT skills.

When you’re ready to begin applying for pen tester jobs, be sure to extend your search beyond the usual job sites. While LinkedIn, Indeed, and ZipRecruiter are excellent resources, you should also scan specialized cybersecurity job boards, like Dice and CyberSecJobs.com.

A career as a pen tester gives you the opportunity to apply your hacking skills for the greater good by helping organizations protect themselves from cyber criminals. It’s also an in-demand, high-paying career path.

According to Glassdoor, the estimated total pay for penetration testers in the US is $97,638 annually. This figure includes an average base salary of $90,673 and $6,965 additional pay. Additional pay may represent profit-sharing, commissions, or bonuses. Your salary will depend on a variety of factors, including your location, experience, education, and certifications. Some industries, like financial services and military contracting, tend to pay higher salaries than others.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 35 percent job growth for information security analysts, including penetration testers, between 2021 and 2031 [2]. This is much faster than the average for all occupations in the US.

As you gain experience as a penetration tester, you may advance to lead a pen testing team. Some penetration testers go on to become information security managers and may even move into executive roles.

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