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Penetration Testing: How to Become a Well-Paid Pen Tester

When you think of computer hackers, you likely think of the bad guys. The unscrupulous ones sitting menacingly behind their screens, looking to rob innocent internet users of their confidential data, along with their trust in humanity.

However, did you know there’s such a thing as ethical hacking? It’s true! Network system owners and app providers hire these hackers to try and break into their systems. This way, they can see how vulnerable they are to a real attack.

Known as penetration testing, the market is growing for IT professionals who know how to perform this process. The payout is solid and the work will always be there.

Are you interested in joining the ranks? Today, we’re sharing how to get started in this fascinating industry.

What Is a Penetration Tester?

If someone broke into your computer system at work, what would they find?

If you run a mom-and-pop bakery, the juicy data might not reveal too much. However, think of the absolute uproar that could occur if a high-profile banking network was hacked, revealing the account information of thousands of account holders.

It might sound like something out of an action movie, but it’s happened on more than one occasion.

High-profile financial institutions like Bank of America have fallen victim to third-party data breaches that left customers nervous and their reputations scorned. Even if you think your security operations are lock-tight, it’s always important to test and then test again.

This is where penetration testing comes in. These experts use a range of different tools and methods to simulate actual cyber-attacks.

They work diligently to uncover any cracks or weaknesses in the network, system, or app they’re investigating. This way, business owners can identify and address those vulnerabilities before someone besides a certified ethical hacker breaks in.

How do you get started in this industry? Let’s take a look at a few of the steps to follow.

Understand Requisite Soft Skills

You can learn the technical skills required to excel as a pentester. However, it’s important to also make sure you have the right soft skills in place before you begin.

Above all else, ethical hackers are fast learners. This is a niche that’s constantly growing and evolving. Trends and techniques that are popular one day could be considered obsolete by the next.

Testers should be able to keep pace with these updates and not fall behind. In addition, you must know how to work confidently as part of a team. In most cases, penetration testers start out with junior-level status.

This is true even if you have a college degree and some work experience before starting your job. You should be able to communicate and collaborate easily with everyone on your team, all working together toward the same goal.

Finally, you should also be a strong writer and communicator.

Once you complete a pen test, you’ll need to relay your findings to individual employees, department leaders, and C-suite executives. This will require breaking down advanced technical concepts into easy-to-follow points.

You should feel comfortable talking about your results and what they mean to the company. While you will often be required to present verbally, you may need to translate your data into tangible reports to share with senior staff members.

Learn Basic Technical Skills

Long before they try to hack their way into a network, penetration testers (or pen testers, for short) learn basic computer and technical skills.

Most of these are skills that you can acquire while still in high school, or in the first few years of college. Some of the most important subjects to learn include:

  • Different operating systems
  • Scripting
  • Coding
  • Programming

You don’t have to be highly adept in these fields just yet. However, it helps to have foundational knowledge to build upon as you fine-tune your hacking skills.

Earn Your College Degree

In years past, it wasn’t uncommon for business owners to recruit actual hackers to work at their organization, with the intent of turning them into “one of the good guys”.

To find these so-called experts, they’d have to scour the dark side of the web, and the process was much more difficult and shady than it was worth. Now that ethical hacking has evolved, they’re taking a more legitimate approach.

Most penetration testers today have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Some of the best majors to pursue include:

  • Information assurance
  • Computer science
  • Information technology (IT)
  • Computer engineering
  • Cybersecurity

Eager to start working before you turn that tassel? Look into online degree programs! This way, you can hone your craft through mentorship or a part-time pen-testing job while working toward your degree.

Pursue Specialized Certifications

A relevant degree is usually all you need to start working in this field. However, there are specific penetration testing certifications that can help you stand out in the workplace. Some of the most prominent ones include:

  • Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)
  • Certified Encryption Specialist
  • Network Security Professional (CompTIA)
  • PenTest+ (CompTIA)

These are only a few of the many certifications that are available. If you’re interested in pursuing one, take the time to speak to your employer. Find out what they’re looking for before you pay for a program and start studying.

Benefits of Becoming Certified

Why should you devote your time, money, and energy toward pen-testing certifications? In short, they can set you apart from the crowd.

While the market isn’t flooded by any means, it’s quickly gaining steam.

That means that there could be dozens of qualified applicants all vying for the same coveted position. If you can add a certification to your resume, you’ll automatically catch the eye of any interview committee.

Plus, these programs can also help you perform better at work! Many of them require you to listen to lectures, take quizzes and tests, and even perform presentations to demonstrate your knowledge. This is a great way to stay sharp on all of those must-have skills.

Once you’ve worked in your role for a while, advanced certification can also be your ticket upward. Employees with these extra credentials are often considered first for promotions, bonuses, and other types of advancement.

Gain Real-World Experience

No amount of studying can prepare a pentester for actual work in the field. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find a job in this niche right after you graduate. You may work for an app developer, software company, or even a managed IT, service provider.

Most of the time, however, pen testers start work elsewhere in the company. As they become certified and experienced, they organically move into the ethical hacking sphere. Some of the departments you might work in before assuming this role include:

  • Security administration
  • Network engineering
  • System administration
  • Network administration
  • Web-based application programming

As long as you focus primarily on the security side of each team, it should be easy to acquire the knowledge you need to excel in this role.

Stay Involved in Your Craft

Once you’ve been working as a pentester for a while, it’s important to stay on top of new developments and connect with others in your space. This is where it can help to get involved with local industry groups and peer networks.

These groups will usually meet routinely to discuss news and trends, share their work progress, and get ideas for new ethical hacking techniques. This is also a great way to network and make new professional connections that could benefit your career down the road.

Sometimes, hackers will even develop their own proprietary tools and mechanisms that they can share with others. Even if you don’t implement these techniques yourself, it’s a great way to learn about how others approach the field.

Along with your full-time job, look for opportunities to be involved in your local ethical hacking community. For instance, see if there are any bug bounty programs in your region where you can contribute.

These are crowdsourcing initiatives that reward hackers for discovering and reporting bugs across software networks.

Is Penetration Testing For You?

If you grew up taking computers apart and putting them back together, then penetration testing might be the perfect career for you. This job is ideal for someone who loves to tinker with systems, find their flaws, and build them back better.

While you won’t actually be putting vulnerable networks back together, you can share your insights and ideas with key executives. Then, they can work with individual teams to fortify those gaps and strengthen their systems.

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