Cybersecurity penetration testing aims to simulate an attack on a computer system or network, identifying possible vulnerabilities and security flaws so that they can be fixed before an attacker takes advantage of them.
Penetration testing involves probing IT resources—such as computers, applications, or networks—for vulnerabilities or weaknesses that attackers could exploit. During a penetration test, a team of security professionals uses various tools and techniques to simulate a real-world cyberattack (e.g., stealing confidential data or disrupting normal business operations). After the assessment, penetration testers generate a report summarizing their findings and begin fixing or mitigating the discovered vulnerabilities.
While a background in cybersecurity or ethical hacking can benefit penetration testers, it is not strictly necessary to start your pentesting career. This article explores the importance of pen testing, the crucial skills to acquire to become a pen tester, and how one can leverage these skills to fast-track their career.
6 Crucial Skills to Become a Pentester
Cybersecurity penetration testing requires knowing how to discover and exploit issues in an IT ecosystem. To find success in a penetration testing career, you should have the skills and knowledge of the following:
- Security tools: Penetration testers have access to dozens of helpful cybersecurity software tools, including Nmap, Wireshark, Burp Suite, Metasploit, and more. These applications help pentesters perform reconnaissance and assess and exploit security vulnerabilities.
- Networking: Modern IT environments consist of dozens or hundreds of machines communicating via a network. Effective penetration testing, therefore, requires knowledge of computer networking hardware, software, and protocols such as TCP/IP, LAN/WAN, DNS, and more.
- Operating systems: Penetration testers should be proficient in common enterprise operating systems such as Windows, Linux, and macOS. This includes a comprehensive understanding of the operating system’s structure, security mechanisms, and common vulnerabilities.
- Computer programming: Penetration testing may require practitioners to be familiar with programming and scripting languages such as Python, Ruby, and Bash. This knowledge helps pentesters automate repetitive tasks, test exploits, and even develop their pentesting tools.
- Analytical and problem-solving skills: Thinking logically is valuable for many IT careers, including penetration testing. Good analytical and problem-solving skills will help pentesters find, exploit, and remediate security vulnerabilities.
- Communication skills: Pentesters work closely with software developers, IT staff, and non-technical business stakeholders. This requires strong communication skills to explain complex technical issues.
Although many penetration testers have an educational background in computer science or information technology, it is not strictly necessary to have a successful penetration testing career. Other pentesters learn through on-the-job experience, while others have obtained penetration testing certifications that teach a combination of theoretical knowledge and practical skills.
Why Cybersecurity Professionals Choose Pentesting
Interest in cybersecurity penetration testing is proliferating—and is companies’ demand for qualified pentesters. Below, we’ll explore some of the reasons why so many cybersecurity professionals are choosing pentesting.
Penetration Testing Salaries
As with other subfields of IT security, knowledgeable and experienced pentesters can receive high salaries for their expertise:
- According to Indeed.com, the average cybersecurity penetration testing salary in the United States is over $123,000 annually (Indeed, 2023).
- The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the median salary for information security analysts (including penetration testers) is $102,600 annually (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).
Penetration Testing Career Growth
Not only is cybersecurity penetration testing a solid career in its own right, but it also leads to opportunities for career growth. After gaining experience in the field, penetration testers may qualify for other positions, such as:
- Senior penetration testers: Senior roles in penetration testing assume greater responsibilities, such as leading projects, developing test methodologies, and assisting more junior team members.
- DevSecOps roles: The DevSecOps methodology brings together software developers, cybersecurity experts, and IT operations teams, fully integrating security into the software development life cycle. Penetration testers can use their security expertise to become
- IT security managers: Managerial roles oversee teams of penetration testers and other cybersecurity professionals. They also manage client relationships and develop the organization’s broader strategy for penetration testing.
- Chief information security officer (CISO): The CISO is an executive-level role primarily responsible for the organization’s cybersecurity. This includes managing security teams, developing security policies and procedures, and overseeing security audits and compliance efforts.
Penetration Testing Job Outlook
Cybersecurity penetration testing and other IT and software fields are expected to continue growing in the short and medium term. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that between 2021 and 2031, information security analyst roles will increase at a rate of 35 percent, which is much faster than the average job. BLS also estimates that during these ten years, companies will create 56,500 new information security analyst jobs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).
The need for penetration testers and other cybersecurity professionals is mainly due to the onslaught of constantly evolving threats and malicious actors. For example, in the first quarter of 2022 alone, there were roughly 400 reported data breaches totaling more than 13 million victims (ITRC, 2022).
With businesses of all sizes and industries constantly facing new cyber threats, it is no surprise that the penetration testing market is projected to continue expanding. According to a report, the global penetration testing market will nearly double from $1.4 billion in 2022 to $2.7 billion in 2027—a healthy annual growth rate of 14 percent (MarketsandMarkets, 2022).
How Can You Advance Your Penetration Testing Career
Cybersecurity penetration testing is an exciting and dynamic field that offers a variety of growth opportunities. By helping organizations identify and resolve the vulnerabilities in their IT security postures, pentesters play an invaluable role in preventing data breaches and cyberattacks.
EC-Council’s C|PENT (Certified Penetration Testing Professional) program teaches students the tools, techniques, and methods they need to know for a long and successful penetration testing career.
The C|PENT program includes 14 theoretical and practical modules about detecting vulnerabilities across the IT environment, from networks and web applications to the cloud and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Students who obtain the C|PENT certification are well-prepared to face the challenges of real-world penetration testing and cybersecurity jobs.
Ready to get started? Learn more about the C|PENT certification and launch your career in penetration testing today.
Indeed. (2023). Penetration tester salary in the United States. https://www.indeed.com/career/penetration-tester/salaries
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). Information Security Analysts: Occupational Outlook Handbook. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm
Identity Theft Resource Center. (2022). First Quarter 2022 Data Breach Analysis: Data Compromises Off to Fast Start; Victim Rates Continue to Drop. https://www.idtheftcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/20220413_One-Pager_Q1-2022-Data-Breach-Analysis.pdf
MarketsandMarkets. (2022). Penetration testing market size, analysis, trends, & forecast. https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/penetration-testing-market-13422019.html
About the Author
David Tidmarsh is a programmer and writer. He’s worked as a software developer at MIT, has a B.A. in history from Yale, and is currently a graduate student in computer science at UT Austin.