You might be using an unsupported or outdated browser. To get the best possible experience please use the latest version of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Microsoft Edge to view this website.

Often going by the title of “penetration tester,” ethical hackers work for a variety of businesses to test their network security measures against possible external threats and malicious actors.

As more and more businesses rely on data and AI to perform their daily functions, strong information technology (IT) defenses are increasing in importance. If hacking for the greater good piques your curiosity, here’s what you should know about how to become a penetration tester.

Forbes Advisor’s education editors are committed to producing unbiased rankings and informative articles covering online colleges, tech bootcamps and career paths. Our ranking methodologies use data from the National Center for Education Statistics, education providers, and reputable educational and professional organizations. An advisory board of educators and other subject matter experts reviews and verifies our content to bring you trustworthy, up-to-date information. Advertisers do not influence our rankings or editorial content.

Penetration testing is a career in cybersecurity that involves performing simulated cyber attacks on a business’s network and web-based applications. Penetration testers’ primary responsibilities may include assessing current firewalls and other defenses, running analyses of security systems and data storage sites and providing recommendations for improving a business’s digital security.

While penetration testers are ethical hackers (i.e., “white hat” hackers), the key to testing a business’s defenses is thinking like a malicious (i.e., “black hat”) hacker. As a penetration tester, you must put yourself in a hacker’s shoes to consider all possible entry points, gaps and vulnerabilities in a business’s security system.

The value of a penetration tester lies both in the services they provide and in the issues they help prevent, from customer data loss to the exposure of trade secrets.

To succeed 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 a business’s defenses as quickly as organizations implement new security measures. Penetration testers must be able to think creatively about how a hacker may attempt to penetrate a web application or data storage system.

Penetration testers also need expert communication skills so they can relay vital information about how businesses can protect themselves from external threats.

At the same time, penetration testers must be current on the latest technological advances so they can adequately test a business’s defenses. These professionals should have a strong understanding of computer programming languages, data encryption and application security tools. Many penetration testers have prior work experience in IT security as software developers, software engineers or network administrators.

It can take time and considerable effort to become a penetration tester, as cybersecurity job requirements typically include education, experience and certification.

The first step to becoming a penetration tester is earning an undergraduate degree or completing a cybersecurity bootcamp.

A bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity or a related field provides you with the foundational knowledge and skills needed to work toward a career as a penetration tester.

Alternatively, a bootcamp can prepare you to become a penetration tester. For example, Infosec’s penetration testing bootcamp and Code Fellows’ cybersecurity bootcamps train students to become ethical hackers.

You may also consider completing a bootcamp even if you already hold an undergraduate degree. This can help you hone your skills and stay up to date on the latest trends and relevant information.

At the end of the day, the best way to gain technical skills is through real-world experience.

Don’t be surprised if your first role is not as a penetration tester. You might instead start as an entry-level IT auditor, cyber crime analyst or cybersecurity specialist. Organizations often prefer to hire penetration testers who have a few years of practical IT security experience under their belts.

As you learn more about cybersecurity on the job, take advantage of this time to practice your penetration testing skills. You may do this in your current role, on your own time or by networking with other penetration testers on platforms like LinkedIn. The more you hone your skills and can showcase your creativity and innovation, the more valuable you will become to potential employers.

Cybersecurity certifications aren’t required for penetration testers, but they can help you stand out among your peers and prove your qualifications. Because most certifications require you to complete continuing education, these credentials demonstrate that you are up to date on the latest information and required skills in the field.

It’s common to hold other IT or cybersecurity positions before becoming a penetration tester. Some professionals take a few years or longer to work their way up to becoming penetration testers.

Keep up 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 open positions. Use both your professional network and online job boards in your search for penetration tester roles.

Earning a relevant certification can help you sharpen your technical skills and stand out against other candidates on the job market. Consider the following certifications as you pursue a career as a penetration tester.

Offered by EC-Council, the CEH credential 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 emerging attack vectors to malware reverse engineering—that malicious hackers use to penetrate businesses’ security defenses.

CEH certification also signifies that while you may have the skills of a hacker, you will not use these skills to engage in any illegal activity.

CompTIA is an online education provider that offers a variety of cybersecurity certifications, one of the most popular being CompTIA’s PenTest+ credential.

Unlike some other, more general cybersecurity certifications, the CompTIA PenTest+ designation offers specialized knowledge about becoming a penetration tester and performing vulnerability assessments. During this certification process, you’ll learn how to plan, assess, implement and report on penetration tests, along with useful tools and various attack approaches.

The GPEN certification is one of the more accessible options, as it does not set specific prerequisites or experience requirements. That said, this credential is not considered a cybersecurity certification for beginners.

As you work toward GPEN certification, you’ll learn how to perform penetration tests, including helpful processes to implement both before and after running a test to best meet stakeholder needs. Cyberseek lists the GPEN credential as one of the top-requested certifications for penetration testers.

Cybersecurity experts, including penetration testers, are among the most in-demand professionals today. In fact, there are significantly more open positions than there are qualified professionals, even as the cybersecurity field is becoming more popular.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment for information security analysts, including penetration testers, to grow by 32% from 2022 to 2032—much faster than the average projected growth rate for all occupations nationwide. As of December 2023, Cyberseek listed penetration and vulnerability testers among the most requested cybersecurity job titles.

Penetration testers earn an average annual salary of more than $124,000, according to data collected by Cyberseek.

Yes, penetration testing can be a challenging role, as it requires you to anticipate a hacker’s actions and find vulnerabilities others may have missed in a business’s security system. Penetration testing also requires advanced computer skills that can take considerable time and effort to earn.

Employers typically prefer candidates who completed an undergraduate degree or a bootcamp, along with relevant certification and professional experience.

Most professionals find that it takes between one and four years to become an entry-level penetration tester, including any education and entry-level work experience.

Meghan Gallagher is a Seattle-based freelance content writer and strategist. She has a B.S. in Marketing Management and a background in digital marketing for healthcare, nonprofit, and higher education organizations.

By admin