How to Become a Penetration Tester

Learn What To Expect As An Ethical Hacker

The term “Penetration tester is the one given to ethical hackers. These individuals, also referred to as assurance validators, are typically employed by web-based application services and network system owners to probe their networks for weaknesses that unethical hackers (those with nefarious motives) might want to exploit so as to gain intelligence and secure data.

The role of penetration testers is to conduct vulnerability assessments, alongside other responsibilities by leveraging their knowledge and skills. What this means is that they get paid to break into networks. They simulate the cyberattacks utilising a vast array of methods and tools, some developed by themselves, ensuring they do all they can to discover gaps in security procedures for systems, web-based applications and networks.

The idea behind a penetration test is to discover all the conceivable methods a computer system can be penetrated for access, to probe cracks in the security system before an actual hacker can get in.

Due to the sensitive nature of the role, penetration testers tend to work on time-sensitive and confidential projects, and that is why being able to work under pressure and being trustworthy are pertinent skills.

Also, being able to harness creativity and come up with solutions on the spot, sufficiently organized to track, record, and produce project reports are also great qualities needed in a penetration tester. You may also be needed to travel extensively. 

What exactly is a penetration tester?

A penetration tester can be likened to a private detective of the technology world. The main aim of a penetration tester is to discover threats and cracks in the system before a potentially nefarious actor can break into the system.

If there is one thing that holds true in regards to human nature and digital information systems especially, it is that notorious actors will continually look for opportunities to negatively leverage vulnerabilities. It is the job of a penetration tester to investigate, expose, and help repair potential weaknesses in wireless and wired network systems, as well as web-based applications.

The role a penetration tester plays is one that is continuous competition with a real life hacker. Think of it as a constantly ongoing arms race. Both sides determinedly attempt to further their skills, techniques and knowledge so that it exceeds the capabilities of their counterpart. 

Penetration testers use an approach of offensive defence. The aim is to offer the very best information security by routinely attacking computer and network systems just as an actual hacker would. This enables them to find the potential crack before the hacker does and help in closing down that vulnerability. This means that systems and information are safeguarded when an attack is carried out.

What do pen testers do?

Typically speaking, penetration testers perform security assessments, threat modelling, as well as the ethical hacking of systems, web-based applications and networks. Specifically, assurance validation consists of the following duties:

  • Collect and analyse OSINT or Open Source Intelligence to discover information disclosures
  • Conduct assessments on a vast array of implementations and technologies using both manual techniques and automated tools.
  • Offer subject matter experience and knowledge concentrating on offensive security testing operations and testing defensive tools in a company
  • Create methodologies, tools and scripts to improve testing processes
  • Carry out physical penetration exercises and social engineering tests
  • Assist in discovering prospective engagements, and leading engagements from the initial stage all the way through remediation and implementation.
  • Test for security vulnerabilities in wireless and wired networks.
  • Examine results of assessments to recognise problems, creating an all-inclusive analytic perspective of the system and the environment it operates within.
  • Identify the source of non-technical and technical findings
  • Create an assessment report that records findings, as well as puts forward prospective countermeasures
  • Communicate the methods used, analytic and findings after assessment completion
  • Track findings which are repetitive on numerous assessments. Communicate such findings
  • Offer technical support and knowledge to ISOs when remediating assessments discovery
  • Provide technical support in network evasion and exploitation techniques and assistance in forensic analysis and inclusive incident handling of compromised systems.

The job description of a penetration tester

The actual duties a penetration tester carries out varies widely on the seniority level of the role and the employer providing a role. Understanding the detailed responsibilities for higher levels can offer an insight into the role. Below is an actual job description to give you an idea:

  • Lead system and enterprise-concentrated application and network penetration assessment to recognise security vulnerabilities and risks.
  • Conduct technical testing beyond using automated tool validation. Create and execute plans, report and conduct technical reports based on outcomes of testing activities.
  • Conduct testing on a vast array of systems such as security controls, web applications, wireless, mobile deployments and network infrastructure.
  • Communicate results as well as remediation strategies to stakeholders consisting of executive leadership and technical staff
  • GXPN, GPEN or OSCP certification preferred

The needs of information security have become more important in organisations dealing with sensitive information such as natural security firms, top corporations and military suppliers.

Experience and Skills of A Penetration Tester

The requirements of prospective penetration testers by employers will vary significantly depending on the detailed duties of the position in question and just how senior the role is. Junior or associate penetration testers rank as the bottom of the penetration tester ladder, with mid level and lead or senior penetration testers ranking above. The role a penetration tester takes on is typically determined by their experience and skill level.

There are certain positions that simply require a slight demonstration of key skills, as well as a suitable level of cybersecurity knowledge and experience. Increasingly, however, employers are searching for candidates that have bachelor degrees in either information security or computer science-related degrees. Certain advanced pen tester positions necessitate a master’s degree. Example of work experience that leads to a penetration testing career are security testing, coding and software development, network administrator or network engineer, vulnerability assessment, or security administrator.

Skills required by a multitude of employers include:

  • PowerShell
  • Python
  • Bash
  • Golang
  • Experience with Windows, macOS, Linux, Network OS, communication protocols, IDS/IPS systems, firewalls, data encryption, mobile penetration testing of Android/iOS systems and virtual environments.

Knowledge of poplar penetration test and application security tools like:

  • Metasploit
  • Kali
  • Burpsuite
  • Web Inspect
  • Wireshark
  • Nessus
  • NMAP or Network Mapper

Popular professional certification tools required by employers include:

  • OSCP Offensive Security Certified Professional
  • IEEE Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers
  • EC Council
  • GIAC Global Information Assurance Certification
  • SANS Technology Institute

Experience and soft skills required by organisations typically include:

  • Great communication skills
  • Creativity
  • Resourcefulness
  • Being self-driven
  • Familiarity with OWASP Top Ten Vulnerabilities

Responsibilities of a penetration tester

There are numerous responsibilities an assurance validator or penetration tester has to bear in mind when doing their job and those responsibilities begin the moment, they gain access into a network. As soon as that is done, they become a security administrator, technical writer and manager in one. 

Governmental agencies and corporations rely on these individuals to conduct risk assessments by testing their security and measuring its effectiveness against hackers with nefarious intents. If, for example, a penetration tester conducts an appraisal of the system and determines that it cannot be compromised by unethical hackers, the organisation’s security team will presume their work is done.

It is imperative that penetration testers continually update their knowledge, methods and skills for hacking. They have to learn of new protocols and security software so that they are better able to discover the vulnerabilities.

Being able to remain updated with current methodologies and technologies as well as understanding how they could be exploited is a hallmark of a great penetration tester. Apart from being able to evaluate the vulnerabilities in certain devices or a network, they need the ability to create reports that adequately communicate these vulnerabilities.

Strong oral and written communication skills are an intrinsic aspect of such a profession. A good penetration tester also requires good operation knowledge of management and business to better demonstrate what the discovered weaknesses could result in.

For example, a penetration tester will have to highlight any prospective losses in regards to recovery time, lost operational hours, loss of data and intellectual property, as well as any other disruptions that might be present in a flawed system.

In the event that a marketing team has to deal with 3 days of downtime because of a corrupted or erased databased caused by a breach, it will be imperative to divulge the type of impact such a breach would have on the organisation financially.

These findings have to presented to the management level using every appropriate visual aid. This helps to make sure that the situation is extremely clear to all necessary stakeholders. Penetration testers do more than just assess issues, they can be quite instrumental in creating solutions to correct these issues.

A great presentation concerning penetration test results will have proposals for a redesigned network or a host of coding approaches or software packages that could help prevent attacks to the system in the future.

6 Steps to Become a penetration tester

Self-analysis

It is important to know that penetration testing will not suit everyone. To become a penetration tester, you need brilliant problem-solving skills, persistent determination, a detailed eye and a desire to continuously educate yourself on the industry’s latest trends. Successful penetration testers also have to possess a high enough level of these qualities to be successful. When you assess yourself, you should be honest enough as that would help you decide if penetration testing is suitable for you.

Education

There was a time when numerous employers hired actual hackers in a bid to convert them to the ethical side of the divide for penetration testing. Nowadays, a college degree is almost mandatory for a penetration tester. Simply having an undergraduate degree in any cybersecurity discipline can offer a viable pathway into the world of penetration testing.

Career Path

A prospective penetration tester has numerous ways to enter the cybersecurity field. To have a great pen testing foundation, it is always recommended to begin in network administration, security administration, system administration, web-based application programming or network engineering, ensuring the focus is always on the security aspect.

Professional Certifications

Prospective employers typically love seeing professional certification in the resumes of penetration testers. This is particularly true for the more senior roles. Numerous organisations provide recognised penetration testing certifications.

Become An Expert

Honing your craft is a great career move, regardless of the field, however, for assurance validators, there are numerous ways to be heads above the rest. Being recognised and active in cybersecurity circles and disciplines like collecting OSINT or open-source intelligence, bug bounty programs and creating propriety attack programs are sure-fire ways to become recognised by your peers.

Remain Updated

As with the majority of cybersecurity roles, it is important to keep up with the happenings of your chosen industry. Ensure your expertise and knowledge are kept updated by following the latest trends in network security and programming, security protocols, hacking techniques, exploited vulnerabilities, as well as any other techniques.

Future of penetration testers

Penetration testers are bound to be in increasing demand for the near future. In truth, there appears to be a dearth of information security professionals and it has been forecasted that this shortage will last into the probable future.

As applications, information and networks requirements consistently become more complex and integral to state and business operations, these systems increasingly come under atta and become more vulnerable. Penetration testers are individuals at the vanguard of needed technical expertise, taking on the role of potential attackers.

Highly rated penetration testers are some of the most highly prized professionals in the InfoSec industry, and it does not appear that this opinion will change anytime soon.

How much do pen testers earn?

Research was carried out in 2019 and it discovered that penetration testers made anything from $55,000 to around $135,000 per year, with the average yearly salary falling at $83,000. This does not take into account profit sharing, commissions and bonuses which add an average of around $17,000 yearly.