How to Become a Penetration Tester: 2021 Career Guide

Written by Coursera • Jul 8, 2021

Learn more about what it takes to get started in this offensive cybersecurity role.

A woman working as a ethical hacker or penetration tester sits in front of her work laptop and wears headphones.

Penetration testers, or pen testers for short, perform simulated cyberattacks on a company’s computer systems and networks. These authorized tests help identify security vulnerabilities and weaknesses before malicious hackers have the chance to exploit them.

A career as a pen tester often starts with an entry-level cybersecurity position. In this article, we’ll go into more detail about what penetration testers do, why this in-demand cybersecurity career could be a good fit for you, and how to get started.

What does a penetration tester do?

As a penetration tester, you’ll take a proactive, offensive role in cybersecurity by performing attacks on a company’s existing digital systems. These tests might use a variety of hacking tools and techniques to find gaps that hackers could exploit. Throughout the process, you’ll document your actions in detail and create a report on what you did and how successful you were at breaching security protocols.  

Penetration tester tasks and responsibilities

The day-to-day tasks of a pen tester will vary depending on the organization. Here are some common tasks and responsibilities you may encounter in this role, all pulled from real job listings:

  • Perform tests on applications, network devices, and cloud infrastructures

  • Design and conduct simulated social engineering attacks

  • Research and experiment with different types of attacks

  • Develop methodologies for penetration testing

  • Review code for security vulnerabilities

  • Reverse engineer malware or spam

  • Document security and compliance issues

  • Automate common testing techniques to improve efficiency

  • Write technical and executive reports

  • Communicate findings to both technical staff and executive leadership

  • Validate security improvements with additional testing

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In this video, we'll discuss what penetration testing or pentesting is and why it's important.

Where do penetration testers work?

Penetration testers typically work in one of three environments.

  • In-house: As an in-house penetration tester, you work directly for a company or organization. This typically allows you to get to know the company’s security protocols well. You may also have more input into new security features and fixes.

  • Security firm: Some organizations hire an outside security firm to conduct penetration testing. Working for a security firm offers greater variety in the types of tests you’ll get to design and perform. 

  • Freelance: Some penetration testers choose to work as freelancers. Choosing this path can give you greater flexibility in your schedule, but you may need to spend more time looking for clients early in your career.

Penetration testing vs. ethical hacking

The terms penetration testing and ethical hacking are sometimes used interchangeably in the cybersecurity world. But the two terms have slightly different meanings. Penetration testing focuses on locating security issues in specific information systems without causing any damage. Ethical hacking is a broader umbrella term that includes a wider range of hacking methods. You can think of penetration testing as one facet of ethical hacking. Both roles have overlap with a cybersecurity Red Team—the group that gives security feedback from the adversary's perspective.

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How to become a penetration tester

As a penetration tester, you can earn a paycheck by legally hacking into security systems. It can be a fast-paced, exciting job if you have an interest in cybersecurity and problem solving. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the steps you might take to get your first job as a penetration tester.

1. Develop penetration testing skills.

Penetration testers need a solid understanding of information technology (IT) and security systems in order to test them for vulnerabilities. Skills you might find on a pen tester job description include:

  • Network and application security

  • Programming languages, especially for scripting (Python, BASH, Java, Ruby, Perl)

  • Threat modeling

  • Linux, Windows, and MacOS environments

  • Security assessment tools

  • Pentest management platforms

  • Technical writing and documentation

  • Cryptography

  • Cloud architecture

  • Remote access technologies

Popular penetration tester tools

Today’s penetration testers have a range of tools to help make their jobs faster and more efficient. If you’re interested in becoming a pen tester, it can help to gain familiarity with one or more of these tools.

*Kali Linux: Popular pentesting operating system

*Nmap: Port scanner for network discovery

*Wireshark: Packet sniffer to analyze traffic on your network

*John the Ripper: Open-source password cracker

*Burp Suite: Application security testing tools

*Nessus: Vulnerability assessment tool

*OWASP ZAP Proxy: Web application security scanner

Get hands-on experience with some of these tools in two hours or less with a Guided Project on Coursera. Start with Wireshark for Basic Network Security Analysis or Web Application Security Testing with OWASP ZAP.

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2. Enroll in a course or training program.

One of the best ways to start developing the skills you’ll need as a penetration tester is to enroll in a specialized course or training program. With these types of programs, you can learn in a more structured environment while building multiple skills at once. 

If you’re new to cybersecurity, consider an option like the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate, which includes an entire unit on penetration testing and incident response. The entire program is online and at your own pace, so you can learn job-ready skills while working or managing life’s other responsibilities.

Do I need a degree to become a penetration tester?

While it can be helpful to have a degree in computer science, information technology, or cybersecurity, not all penetration testing jobs require a degree. Typically, your level of experience and ability to complete the task matter more than what degree (if any) you have. If you’re starting in cybersecurity without a related degree, it might be helpful to pursue a certification to validate your skills.

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3. Get certified.

Cybersecurity certifications demonstrate to recruiters and hiring managers that you have the skills required to succeed in the industry. In addition to these more general cybersecurity certifications, you can also get certified in penetration testing or ethical hacking. Reputable certifications to consider include:

  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

  • CompTIA PenTest+

  • GIAC Penetration Tester (GPEN)

  • GIAC Web Application Penetration Tester (GWAPT)

  • Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)

  • Certified Penetration Tester (CPT)

Earning one of these certifications generally requires passing an exam. Besides earning a credential for your resume, preparing for a certification exam can often help you develop your skill set as well.

4. Practice in real and simulated environments.

Many companies want to hire penetration testers with previous experience. Luckily, there are ways to start gaining experience outside of the workplace. Many pen testing training programs include hands-on testing in simulated environments.

Another way to gain experience (and make your resume stand out) is to participate in bug bounty programs. In these programs, companies typically offer cash bonuses to independent pen testers and security researchers who find and report security flaws or bugs in their code. It’s an excellent way to test your skills and start networking with other security professionals. You can find a list of bounties on sites like Bugcrowd and HackerOne

Finally, you’ll find several websites designed to allow penetration testers to legally practice and experiment through fun, gamified experiences. Here are a few to get your started:

5. Start in an entry-level IT position.

Many penetration testers start out in more entry-level IT and cybersecurity roles before advancing into pen testing. If you want to pursue a career in pen testing, consider starting out in a role like network or systems administrator or information security analyst to start building your IT skills.

6. Begin your job search.

When you’re ready to begin applying for pen tester jobs, be sure to extend your search beyond the usual job sites. While LinkedIn, Indeed, and ZipRecruiter are excellent resources, you should also scan specialized cybersecurity job boards, like Dice and CyberSecJobs.com.

Why pursue a career in penetration testing?

A career as a pen tester gives you the opportunity to apply your hacking skills for the greater good by helping organizations protect themselves from cyber criminals. It’s also an in-demand, high-paying career path.

Penetration tester salary

Penetration testers in the US make an average salary of $103,260, according to Glassdoor in July 2021 [1]. Your salary will depend on a variety of factors, including your location, experience, education, and certifications. Some industries, like financial services and military contracting, tend to pay higher salaries than others.

Job outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 31 percent job growth for information security analysts, including penetration testers, between 2019 and 2029 [2]. This is much faster than the average for all occupations in the US.

Career path for penetration testers

As you gain experience as a penetration tester, you may advance to lead a pen testing team. Some penetration testers go on to become information security managers and may even move into executive roles.

Start your career in cybersecurity

Start building job-ready skills in cybersecurity with the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate on Coursera. Learn from top industry experts and earn a credential for your resume in less than six months. 

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

How long does it take to become a penetration tester?

While no two career paths are the same, it’s possible to transition into a pen testing role after gaining one to four years of work experience in IT and information security. 

What degree is needed to be a penetration tester?

You don’t necessarily need a related degree to work in penetration testing. Earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in computer science, cybersecurity, or information security could make you a more competitive candidate.

Is penetration testing difficult?

Penetration testing requires a foundational knowledge of computers, networks, and computer security, as well as many technical skills. While this can seem intimidating at first, you can learn these skills and gain fluency in the related technologies with practice and persistence. 

Can penetration testers work from home?

As more technology moves to the cloud, so do many of the tasks of penetration testers. Many job sites list remote penetration tester roles—a trend that’s likely to continue as more companies switch to a remote work model after COVID-19.

Related articles

Article sources

1. Glassdoor. "Penetration Tester Salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/penetration-tester-salary-SRCH_KO0,18.htm." Accessed July 7, 2021.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Information Security Analysts, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm." Accessed July 7, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Jul 8, 2021

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