Penetration testers are cybersecurity professionals that conduct authorized cyberattacks on networks, devices, and other technology assets. Their primary purpose is to identify security vulnerabilities and attempt to exploit these vulnerabilities, so as to provide the company being tested with information they can use to shore up their security.
What a Penetration Tester Does
Penetration testers act as ethical hackers with a focus on the identification of security issues without harming underlying data or systems. Companies hire them to conduct simulated attacks and provide insights about vulnerabilities they find, how they exploited them, and what needs addressing.
In some cases, pen testers participate in red team/blue team exercises, acting as the red team – which is adversarial – to test the blue team – the company’s internal security team – and see if they can successfully breach the system or if they’re stopped.
Work usually begins by gathering information and conducting reconnaissance, allowing pen testers to find exploitable vulnerabilities associated with any given test parameters. Next, they’ll create an initial plan, including identifying required tools, writing necessary scripts, and selecting appropriate methodologies.
During the tests, penetration testers use the same tools and techniques a legitimate threat would during an attack. Network vulnerability scanning, social engineering, and password cracking are all potentially part of the equation. Once a viable entry point into a network or system is identified, pen testers apply their skills and knowledge – as well as harness various tools – to exploit them.
After conducting tests, penetration testers create in-depth reports outlining the vulnerabilities they’ve identified. Additionally, they’ll discuss exploits they used to verify the vulnerability and advance the test. At times, they may also provide remediation recommendations or participate in remediation efforts, though this varies.
How to Become a Penetration Tester
Becoming a penetration tester typically starts with formal education or training. Most professionals in the field have a Bachelor’s degree or higher in a related discipline, such as cybersecurity, computer science, or information assurance. Others learn the requisite skills through cybersecurity bootcamps.
Some might start with an entry-level job in IT, hone their skills through on-the-job training and certification programs, and work their way up to become a professiona pen tester.
With education and training, pen testers acquire critical skills and understandings. Knowledge of network, network and application security, web applications, mobile applications, software development, and similar areas is essential. Additionally, programming capabilities in languages like Java, SQL, BASH, Python, Perl, and Ruby are a must.
After securing the proper education, aspiring penetration testers usually begin their careers in a related field. Network administration, security administration, application programming, and many others are viable starting points, particularly if there’s an emphasis on security.
Along the way, it’s critical to gain additional relevant experience. For pen testers, experience with Linux, Windows, and macOS is required, as well as familiarity with security assessment tools, including options like Aircrack-ng, Burp Suite, Hashcat, John the Ripper, Kali Linux, Metasploit, Nmap, SQLmap, and Zed Attack Proxy. Threat modeling, technical writing, and cryptography are additional skills a pen tester needs, as well as an understanding of cloud architecture and remote access technologies.
Many aspiring pen testers also acquire relevant certifications. Here are some that are most relevant to the field:
- Certified Cloud Security Professional (Associate of (ISC)²)
- Certified Encryption Specialist (EC-Council)
- Certified Ethical Hacker (EC-Council)
- Certified Information Systems Auditor (ISACA)
- Cybersecurity Analyst Certification, CySA+ (CompTIA)
- GIAC Security Professional (GIAC)
- GIAC Security Expert (GIAC)
- ITIL®1 Foundation
- Network Vulnerability Assessment Professional (CompTIA)
- PenTest+ (CompTIA)
- Secure Infrastructure Specialist (CompTIA)
- Security Analytics Professional (CompTIA)
- Systems Security Certified Practitioner (Associate of (ISC)²)
Penetration testing is also a field where ongoing education is necessary. Threats evolve on a daily basis, so remaining up-to-date with continuous training is critical to stay on top of new hacking techniques, identified vulnerabilities, pen testing tools, and other information coming from the cybersecurity sector.
Penetration Tester Salaries
Penetration testers are typically well compensated for their knowledge and skills. While pay rates can vary, pen testers usually earn between $87,863 and $166,550 per year, with the average sitting at $120,970.
Most organizations that hire full-time pen testers offer comprehensive benefits packages, including health insurance, retirement planning, and paid time off.
Many pen testers work as freelancers or on a project basis. In these cases, salaries may not fit into the figures outlined above, as they’ll fluctuate depending on the workload and rates set by the penetration tester. Self-employed pen testers must provide their own benefits, and should factor these costs into their pricing considerations.
Career Outlook for Penetration Testers
Overall, the career outlook for penetration testers is strong. Companies continue to prioritize cybersecurity, and penetration testing is often critical for identifying exploitable vulnerabilities to ensure they’re correctly remediated. As a result, demand for pen testers is on the rise, and that’s likely to continue in the years (if not decades) to come.
Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for information security analysts – a category that can include penetration testers – the number of positions is expected to grow by 35% between 2021 and 2031. That’s far above the average growth rate of 5%, showing the significant amount of potential for those who choose this field.
For more information, see our complete guide to penetration testing.