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How to Become a Penetration Tester

By The Fullstack Academy Team

A penetration tester types code into a laptop.

How to Become a Penetration Tester

Cyberattacks pose a major threat to businesses and can cause lasting damage to a company’s performance and finances. Cybersecurity Ventures, a leading global cyber economy researcher and publisher, predicts cybercrime will inflict $8 trillion USD in damages worldwide in 2023.

Cybersecurity professionals are vital to the overall health of modern businesses. Penetration testers play a key role in cybersecurity strategy: They probe networks for vulnerabilities and exploits to prevent criminal attacks. Those interested in becoming a penetration tester should consider UIC’s online Cybersecurity Bootcamp to take their first step into the field.

What Does a Penetration Tester Do?

Penetration testers are information security specialists who identify security risks, generate threat assessment reports, and recommend fixes. They may work directly for a company, offer freelance services to businesses that need to test their systems for vulnerabilities or work with a cybersecurity organization that specializes in penetration testing.

A penetration tester probes the organization’s network with various tools (which may include self-made tools) to uncover vulnerabilities in software, networks, programs, and equipment, identifying techniques that attackers may use to access security exploits. They imitate cyberattacks (often called “ethical hacking”) to see what they can access and how an organization’s existing security protocols react.

Penetration testers need to remain current on the latest hacking strategies and techniques used by cybercriminals. Their threat assessment reports can change how businesses approach cybersecurity. A security response that doesn’t effectively defend against an actual cyberattack can lead to disaster for any business.

How to Become a Penetration Tester: 4 Common Steps

The penetration tester’s role is complex, requiring detailed and up-to-date knowledge of the latest security trends and how to exploit them. While there are many methods to begin a career in cybersecurity, here are a few common steps.

Education

The right training can make a penetration tester a more appealing candidate to a company or client, which can result in a better salary. While individuals interested in cybersecurity may pursue a bachelor’s degree in a field such as computer science, many employers prefer experience and qualifications over a degree.

One method to jump-start a career in cybersecurity is attending a cybersecurity bootcamp. Bootcamps allow for accelerated training with cybersecurity experts to build real-world skills. In as few as 12 weeks, students can learn powerful cybersecurity tools such as Wireshark and Bash. Bootcamps also help students prepare for certification exams.

Ready to jumpstart a career in cybersecurity?

Learn the skills you need to fight cybercrime with our part-time and full-time bootcamp offerings

Experience

An entry-level IT position can give aspiring penetration testers hands-on experience working with networks. Similar roles in software development, programming, help desk assistance, coding, or other fields that involve collaboration with IT professionals can offer new skills and opportunities to network with peers.

With experience, managerial roles on specific projects may become available. Much of a penetration tester’s role is to relay important information to the IT and security teams responsible for managing a company’s cybersecurity operation. Experience managing projects can help penetration testers clearly communicate threat assessments to cybersecurity leadership.

Certification

One of the best ways to demonstrate your competence in cybersecurity is by earning relevant certifications, such as the highly regarded Certified Information Systems Security Professional certification (CISSP). Several other cybersecurity certifications can also help build a skill set that stands out to employers. Since certifications show a proven capability with their subjects, they can be more valuable than a degree, which often reflects only general knowledge.

Foundational Skills

Cybersecurity skills benefit individuals whether they pursue a career as a penetration tester or other positions such as an analyst or a support specialist. Building these skills can help improve career opportunities.

Security Automation

In cybersecurity, automation is the machine-based execution of security actions that can detect, investigate, and remedy cyber threats by identifying potential attacks, assessing and prioritizing alerts as they arise, and responding to them promptly.

Linux Command Line

The command line is where users input commands for the Linux operating system to execute. Cybersecurity professionals use Linux due to its higher level of security and cost-effectiveness, as well as an easy-to-use command-line interface (CLI) that supports various programming languages. They use customized Linux distributions such as Kali Linux to perform in-depth penetration testing, assess vulnerabilities, and perform forensic analysis after a network has suffered an attack.

Teamwork and Communication

When penetration testers discover vulnerabilities, they must be able to explain them and identify solutions. A considerable element of penetration testing is creating threat reports, requiring strong communication skills to properly convey the necessary information. Often penetration testers work alongside a company’s IT department, necessitating the ability to collaborate and work well with others.

Penetration Tester Salary and Job Outlook

Because preventing cyberattacks is so crucial to companies and other organizations, penetration testers are well compensated and have a strong job outlook. The median annual salary associated with penetration testers was approximately $89,000, according to 2022 Payscale data.

Factors that can influence salary include experience, the type of industry, and location. For example, data from Payscale shows that professionals with less than a year of experience received an average salary of around $70,000, while those with 10 to 19 years of experience made an average of $121,000.

Job growth is promising for all roles in cybersecurity—September 2022 data from Lightcast indicates 23.4% projected growth in the profession over the next 10 years.

Ready to jumpstart a career in cybersecurity?

Learn the skills you need to fight cybercrime with our part-time and full-time bootcamp offerings