Cybersecurity is a high-growth field with many possible jobs to pursue. If you’re passionate about technology, you might consider pursuing a career as a penetration tester, for example. What exactly is a penetration tester and what’s the process for becoming one? This career guide explains what you need to know.
In This Article:
- What Is a Penetration Tester?
- What Does a Penetration Tester Do?
- Definitions of White Hat, Grey Hat and Black Hat Hackers
- How To Become a Penetration Tester With a Cybersecurity Degree
- What are Penetration Tester Education Requirements?
- Earning Professional Certifications
- What Skills Does a Penetration Tester Need?
What Is a Penetration Tester?
A penetration tester is a cybersecurity specialist who looks for vulnerabilities in an organization’s computer system. Essentially, penetration testers are white-hat hackers who identify vulnerabilities that black-hat hackers could potentially exploit in order to gain access to sensitive information or to cause system malfunctions. The work that penetration testers do is invaluable for preventing cybersecurity attacks on all types of organizations, including government agencies.
Penetration testing is, by nature, a proactive approach to cybersecurity because it aims to identify and eliminate vulnerabilities before unethical hackers can exploit them. In contrast, fixing security flaws after an attack has already occurred is not proactive, although it is nonetheless vital.
Penetration testers may work directly for the companies whose computer systems they are evaluating. Alternatively, they may work for a third-party company that contracts its penetration testing services out to other organizations. In fact, it’s sometimes helpful for penetration testers to come from an external company, as they may be more likely to catch security flaws without prior exposure to the computer system.
What Does a Penetration Tester Do?
Penetration testers tend to follow a set of methodologies and use specific cybersecurity techniques to go about their work. There are six commonly used phases of penetration testing, as follows:
- Planning and reconnaissance
- Scanning the system for weaknesses
- Obtaining entry to the system by exploiting weaknesses
- Maintaining unauthorized access to the system for as long as possible
- Analyzing the results and generating written reports
- Removing all traces of their presence from the system and remediating security flaws
Definitions of White Hat, Grey Hat and Black Hat Hackers
A "white hat" hacker is an ethical hacker, such as a penetration tester, who hacks computer systems for the sole purpose of identifying and fixing security vulnerabilities. They don’t intend to exploit sensitive information or cause disruptions within the computer system. Rather, organizations may hire them to ensure their systems and networks are protected from unethical hackers.
In contrast, a "black hat" hacker is an unethical hacker who, rather than being hired to identify security flaws, looks for vulnerabilities to exploit for their own purposes. Typically, black hat hackers are interested in financial gain (e.g. by stealing the organization’s customers’ credit card information). Some black-hat hackers are state actors employed by rogue nations that attempt to cause disruptions within an enemy country (e.g. infrastructure disruptions).
"Gray hat" hackers are the people in between the two categories. Their actions can potentially be good, but tend to be viewed as morally questionable. It is important to be ethical and follow laws to avoid being viewed as a black hat or grey hat.
How To Become a Penetration Tester With a Cybersecurity Degree
If you’re still in high school, the process of becoming a penetration tester could begin right away. Talk to your guidance counselor about adding any tech-related courses your school offers. You might also look for a coding club to join or check out relevant internships in your area.
After high school, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree. A cybersecurity degree is ideal because penetration testers are cybersecurity experts.
In addition to your bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to plan on earning at least one or two professional certifications. Professional certifications show that you possess advanced technical competencies in specified areas.
What Are Penetration Tester Education Requirements?
A degree in cybersecurity or programming will be essential for your career. A Bachelor of Science in Information Technology with an Emphasis in Cybersecurity will allow you to develop foundational competencies in information technology (IT) and cybersecurity.
You will also need to know the various laws pertaining to cybercrime. Because you will be handling somebody else’s network, make sure you know the rules and get the necessary documentation before doing anything. It is usually best to find work for a cybersecurity company that specializes in vulnerability assessments.
Earning Professional Certifications
Industry certifications are standards of knowledge in the field. Many employers tend to require certifications for different positions to make sure candidates are the right fit for the job.
CompTIA’s PenTest+ certification can give you a good start in your penetration testing career. It includes a multiple-choice section and a performance-based test to fully measure your skills. They recommend that you have three to four years of experience in security or another certification like Security+, but there are no prerequistes.1
The Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification is another important certification to consider. Test takers will be measured on ethics of hacking, complex secure networks and will learn to fully test and secure a company’s system. To take the test, you must have two years of IT security experience and must attend official training sessions or be approved by an application process.2
A Certified Red Team Operations Professional (CRTOP) is valuable if you want to join a large team. A red team is a group of vulnerability testers who go deeper into security than any one person could. According to InfoSec, the test to become a CRTOP is fifty questions long and can take two hours to complete.3 If you believe you work better in a team, then consider looking into this certification.
A Certified Mobile and Web App Penetration Tester (CMWAPT) certification is good for showing you can perform vulnerability testing on different platforms. Covering Android, Apple iOS and web applications, the CMWAPT is a great way to expand your penetration testing skills past regular networks.4
What Skills Does a Penetration Tester Need?
The skills required to be an effective penetration tester can be divided into hard skills and soft skills.
Hard Skills for Aspiring Penetration Testers
Hard skills include technical competencies, such as knowledge of programming skills and operating systems. Some of the most helpful programming languages for penetration testers include the following:
It’s also helpful to understand how to use the Linux operating system. This open-source operating system allows free access and is popular with many organizations.
Soft Skills for Aspiring Penetration Testers
Although penetration testing is a technical job, aspiring penetration testers can also benefit from having a blend of soft skills. Some of the most important soft skills for a penetration tester include the following:
- Communication skills
- Problem-solving abilities
- Analytical reasoning and critical thinking
- Teamwork and a collaborative approach
- A creative mindset
If you’re passionate about protecting the security and integrity of computing systems and digital information, you can fuse your passion with purpose at Grand Canyon University (GCU). Apply for enrollment at our College of Science, Engineering and Technology and explore modern degree programs, such as the Bachelor of Science in Information Technology with an Emphasis in Cybersecurity degree. Fill out the form on this page to learn more about forging your future at GCU.
1 CompTIA, CompTIA PenTest+ in August 2021.
2 InfoSec, Top 10 Penetration Testing Certifications for Security Professionals (Updated 2020) in August 2021.
3 InfoSec, Red Team Operations Training Boot Camp in August 2021.
4 InfoSec, Certified Mobile and Web App Penetration Tester (CMWAPT) in August 2021.
Approved by an associate professor for the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on Feb. 23, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.