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Penetration Tester Career Guide

What is a penetration tester?

A penetration tester, often known as an ethical hacker, plays a significant role in cybersecurity. By simulating cyber-attacks on computer systems, networks, and web applications, they help assess and enhance an organization’s security posture. Their tasks directly impact an organization’s digital infrastructure, making it more resilient to real-life cyber threats. This role is a preemptive measure to prevent potential breaches and protect sensitive data from being compromised. These professionals reduce digital threats by discovering and fixing vulnerabilities before they’re exploited by malicious attackers.

Duties and responsibilities

The responsibilities of a penetration tester may vary depending on the nature and size of an organization. Usually, they’re expected to plan and perform realistic cyber-attacks on digital infrastructures to unveil their security weaknesses. Among these simulated attacks could be phishing schemes, password cracking attempts, or injection of malicious codes to assess the response systems. They are also responsible for documenting potential threats, loopholes, and vulnerabilities detected during the cyberattacks.

Additionally, after the testing, these professionals create detailed reports on the vulnerabilities identified, the severity of each, and recommended measures to mitigate the risks. They often work closely with IT and management teams to ensure these findings are understood and acted upon. They may also be tasked with monitoring and adjusting security systems and policies based on the outcomes of their tests.

Work environment

Generally, a penetration tester works in an office environment. However, due to the versatile nature of their tasks, some may work remotely or on-site depending on their assignments for particular systems or locations. Regular interactions with IT and management teams are integral to their positions, as they must clearly convey their discoveries and advise on security within the organization.

Depending on their contract duration and the length of specific projects, these professionals may have to adapt to new work environments regularly. Their roles can be stressful due to the intellectual complexities of compiling simulated attacks and analyzing potential threats. However, they also experience the gratification of safeguarding their organizations from potential cyber-attacks.

Typical work hours

Under normal circumstances, a penetration tester may work standard business hours of nine to five, Monday through Friday. However, these professionals might sometimes work irregular hours or be on call outside traditional work hours. This is especially true when performing tests that could disrupt daily operations, which would need to be performed outside standard work times.

Regardless of the varying schedules, the average full-time tester is often estimated to work up to forty hours a week. Consultants or independent contractors may have more unpredictable work schedules, depending on the terms of their agreements or the scope of their projects.

How to become a penetration tester

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a penetration tester. The path has several steps, including academic, practical, and certification requirements.

Step 1: Complete high school education

Your journey begins with completing your high school education. At this stage, focus on subjects related to mathematics and computer science, as they provide the foundational knowledge necessary for this role. Good grades in these subjects can also improve your chances of admission into related college programs later.

Step 2: Obtain a degree

The next step involves earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as computer science, information technology, cybersecurity, or a closely related discipline. Some companies do not require a college education, but it will help you stand out in the field. These programs often provide coursework on network security, firewalls and VPN security, ethical hacking, data protection, and other relevant areas.

Step 3: Gain experience in IT

Following your undergraduate studies, it’s beneficial to gain some hands-on experience in the IT sector or a similar field. This could be through an internship, entry-level role, or volunteer work. Experience will help you apply your theoretical knowledge, understand the practical aspects of IT security, and improve your problem-solving skills.

Step 4: Earn relevant certifications

The cybersecurity field places great importance on professional certifications. Consider obtaining certificates like Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), Licensed Penetration Tester (LPT), or Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP). These certifications will demonstrate your skills and technical knowledge to potential employers.

Step 5: Build a professional network

Networking is essential in many professions, and cybersecurity is no different. Attend industry events, online forums, and seminars. Connect with professionals in the field on business-oriented social media platforms. A strong network can open up job opportunities and provide insights about the latest trends and skills needed.

Step 6: Apply for jobs

Equipped with the necessary education, experience, and certifications, you should apply for positions as a penetration tester. Remember to tailor your resume and cover letter to each position, highlighting relevant skills and experiences. It is also beneficial to prepare thoroughly for interviews, showcasing not only your technical abilities but also your problem-solving skills and ethical consciousness.

Step 7: Continuous learning and advancement in the field

Even after achieving your initial goal of becoming a penetration tester, remember the importance of continuous learning in this rapidly evolving field. Attend workshops, webinars, and courses to stay current on the latest developments. As your career advances, you may decide to specialize in a particular area of penetration testing or progress into a managerial position in cybersecurity.

How much do penetration testers make?

Penetration tester salaries vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. The level of threat sophistication the tester typically works with, certifications, and the extent to which they use or create innovative hacking tools could also impact their compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Information Technology Services: $120,000
  • Finance and Insurance: $115,000
  • Management of Companies and Enterprises: $110,000
  • Computer Systems Design: $105,000
  • Telecommunications: $100,000

Highest paying states

  • California: $125,000
  • New York: $120,000
  • Virginia: $115,000
  • Texas: $110,000
  • Maryland: $105,000

Browse penetration tester salary data by market

Types of penetration testers

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for penetration testers. This section is intended to aid job seekers, students, and professionals in identifying specific domains within the broader field of penetration testing where they can develop their skills and interests.

Ethical hacking

One domain that often attracts individuals into the field of penetration testing is ethical hacking. As ethical hackers, these professionals use their skills to identify and exploit system vulnerabilities responsibly, with the ultimate objective of improving system security. Their expertise is widely sought after in the private sector, particularly in industries like finance and healthcare, where the integrity of digital information systems is critical.

Network penetration testing

Digital communication relies heavily on networks, making network penetration a pivotal aspect of the profession. Specializing in network penetration testing involves mimicking the tactics of potential attackers on a company’s network infrastructure. Specialists in this area devise and execute tests on routers, switches, and other networking devices to fortify protection against possible intrusions.

Web application penetration testing

A closely related but distinct branch within the field is web application penetration testing. It focuses on finding potential weaknesses in the design, architecture, and function of web applications. This specialization calls for a deep understanding of coding and software development practices, as professionals must dissect applications to identify where unwanted exploitation may occur.

Wireless network penetration testing

Given the growing prevalence of wireless communication, a specialization in wireless network penetration testing has become increasingly important. Identifying vulnerabilities in wireless networks entails different methodologies and approaches compared to traditional network testing. Experts in this area are trained to conduct comprehensive security assessments on Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth devices, and other wireless communication systems.

Red team penetration testing

If you’re interested in a more holistic approach to vulnerability assessments, red team penetration testing could be for you. Red teams simulate real-world attacks on every aspect of an organization’s security, making this a broader and more strategic specialization. Red team testers need strong communication and project management skills, as they often coordinate efforts across multiple teams and sectors of a business.

Top skills for penetration testers

This section highlights the skills and traits that will lead to career success as a penetration tester. They need a unique blend of technical aptitude, analytical skills, and a deep understanding of cybersecurity threats and remedies.

Technical understanding

As a penetration tester, it’s necessary to have an extensive knowledge of various operating systems, programming languages, and security protocols. This is essential for simulating attacks, identifying system vulnerabilities, and recommending corrective measures to improve their security.

Problem-solving skills

Another key aspect of this role is the ability to identify and solve problems. You will need to think like a hacker, challenging the existing systems and finding potential weak points.

Excellent communication

Good communication is necessary to articulate technical jargon into understandable language. This helps when outlining findings and explaining how to remediate any discovered vulnerabilities to non-technical co-workers or clients.

Understanding of cyber laws

You need to be aware of the legal aspects of cybersecurity. This includes privacy laws, data protection rights, and the potential legal consequences of a security breach.

Persistence and attention to detail

Given the nature of the role, persistence and attention to detail are vital. These enable testers to thoroughly inspect every aspect of a system, ensuring that no potential vulnerability is overlooked.

Penetration tester career path options

As a penetration tester, your initial step on the career ladder involves active participation in solving complex security threats through your rigorous testing. This widespread exposure to varied systems and vulnerabilities puts you in a unique position to advance professionally within the cybersecurity sector. Witnessing the mistakes companies make and how breaches can occur comes with an in-depth understanding of protecting information assets.

When it’s time to advance in your career, several pathways exist within cybersecurity. One common pathway is moving toward more specialized forms of penetration testing. After gaining significant experience as a general tester, you may focus on network, web application, mobile application, or wireless security. These roles typically involve a greater technical depth, and the ability to focus your skills enables you to become an expert in your chosen niche.

Another career progression option involves steering toward a managerial or consulting role. For instance, after gaining sufficient experience, you could become a senior tester or team lead, where you would manage a group of penetration testers. This role would not only require technical proficiency but also strong leadership and project management skills. Alternatively, you might move into a cybersecurity consulting role, advising companies about vulnerabilities and how best to protect their systems and data.

Finally, some decide to diversify their roles completely, branching out into related fields of cybersecurity such as forensic computing or policy development. Such roles offer the chance to apply your analytical and problem-solving skills in new ways and provide a fresh set of challenges. The skills you have acquired as a tester will be invaluable here, as understanding the ‘attacker’s mindset’ can be highly beneficial.

The demand for professionals in this role is rapidly growing and changing as organizations around the globe increase their investments in cybersecurity measures. The rising prevalence of data breaches and hacking incidents has led to an increase in hiring those who can identify and fix weak spots in their systems. Changes in technology also factor into this trend. As new software and systems are developed, new vulnerabilities appear, policing for which becomes a mandate to avoid unintended leaks, threats, or system failures.

Advancements in cloud technology have had a significant impact on this job. As businesses increasingly transfer their data to the cloud, the need for trustworthy penetration testers grows simultaneously. It further extends the role from on-site security checks to testing remote cloud-based systems, hence demanding an evolving skillset to tackle newer challenges. Additionally, laws and regulations concerning data privacy and security encourage companies to invest more in this area, resulting in higher demand for these professionals.

Employment projections

Recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data indicates a bright future for penetration testers. Through 2031, the BLS projects a 35% job growth for “Information Security Analysts,” a category that includes pen testers. This increase significantly surpasses the average growth rate for all occupations, signifying these professionals’ critical role in the future.

Penetration tester career tips

Get certified

It’s helpful to attain professional certifications to enhance your credentials. These can help you advance in your profession and offer you a competitive edge. Certifications like Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) or Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) are well-recognized in the field.

Build a lab

Having your personal virtual lab allows you to practice your skills safely and legally. You can simulate networks and systems to test and refine your techniques. This practice can also allow you to understand and learn from different scenarios.

Stay updated

The field of cybersecurity is always evolving. As such, it’s essential to stay informed about emerging threats and vulnerabilities. Attend conferences, sign up for industry newsletters, and monitor trusted online forums to keep up with trends.

Learn various programming languages

While not always necessary, knowledge of different programming languages like Python, Java, or C++ is extremely beneficial. It can allow you to write your scripts during a penetration test, understand the potential vulnerabilities better, and communicate more effectively with developers.

Build a professional network

Networking with other professionals in the field can offer several benefits. It can lead to career advancement opportunities, allows for knowledge sharing, and keeps you informed about industry developments. Some relevant associations and networks include:

  • Information Systems Security Association (ISSA)
  • The International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council)
  • Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP)

Seek continuous learning

The field of penetration testing is continually changing, making continuous learning a necessity. Regularly take part in workshops, webinars, or online courses. Some specific suggestions are:

  • Cybrary online cybersecurity courses
  • Webinars hosted by cybersecurity companies like Symantec or McAfee
  • Penetration Testing Training with Kali Linux – offered by Offensive Security

Where the penetration tester jobs are

Top employers

  • IBM
  • Raytheon
  • Cisco Systems
  • FireEye
  • Palo Alto Networks

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Florida
  • New York

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • PentesterLab
  • CyberSec Jobs
  • LinkedIn


What specific skills are required for being a penetration tester?

Intricate understanding of networking, coding, and hacking techniques and the ability to think ‘outside the box’ are critical skills for penetration testers. It’s a job that requires a deep knowledge of the systems you’re testing to know their weaknesses, as well as the ability to stay updated with the latest security threats.

What are the daily tasks of a penetration tester?

Daily tasks might include identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities, conducting security audits, documenting potential security breaches, and advising on remediation processes to fix these vulnerabilities. Each day might bring different challenges, as this job is about staying one step ahead of cyber threats.

What qualifications are preferred for a penetration tester?

A bachelor’s degree in computer science or cybersecurity is often preferred, along with certificates like Certified Information Systems Security Professional, Certified Ethical Hacker, and Offensive Security Certified Professional credentials. These are seen as serious advantages with high-profile employers.

Are there certain personality traits required for a penetration tester?

Patience, persistence, creativity, and an inquisitive mind are some of the key traits. Since penetration testers continually push against systems to find vulnerabilities, being determined and innovative is essential. They also need to be ethical and trustworthy due to the sensitive nature of their work.

Can penetration testers work remotely or is on-site presence typically required?

Most penetration testers work remotely, but some cases might require on-site presence, such as when testing physical security measures. However, with the advent of remote technologies, this is not as common as before.

What’s the best way to start a career as a penetration tester?

Getting a degree in a tech-related field and earning relevant certifications is a good start. Learning ethical hacking techniques, practicing on testing platforms, and understanding the mind of a cybercriminal are key steps to embarking on this career path. Some people begin in tech roles like network administration or software development before transitioning to this specialty.

What are the challenges that can be faced in penetration testing?

The profession can be stressful and demanding due to the responsibility of safeguarding an organization’s network and data. The task of staying updated with ever-evolving cyber threats also adds to the challenge, requiring continuous learning and development of new skills.

Are there opportunities for advancement in penetration testing?

Yes, with experience, penetration testers can move into senior or lead roles or even become cybersecurity consultants. There’s plenty of room for career growth, especially for those who constantly update their skills and adapt to the newest technologies and threats.