Is Cybersecurity Hard to Learn? 9 Tips for Success

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 21, 2021

Pursuing a career in cybersecurity can present a rewarding challenge with the right mindset.

A woman sits at a table with her laptop in front of her working on a cybersecurity project.

Whether cybersecurity is difficult to learn will depend on your own perspective. If you’re curious about technology, enjoy the thrill of solving complex problems, and embrace learning new things, you could find cybersecurity an engaging and worthwhile challenge to pursue. 

If you’re considering a career in the industry, it’s normal to feel intimidated by the prospect of learning (and keeping up with) the technical skills involved. Some of these skills are no doubt challenging, but with the right mentality and a plan of action, you can build a foundation for a rewarding and in-demand job. 

As you build the skills you’ll need for a career in cybersecurity, keep these tips in mind.

1. Build a foundation with an introductory course.

By taking a course in cybersecurity, you’ll not only build foundational skills in a structured learning environment, you’ll also get to experience what cybersecurity is all about firsthand. Use this as an opportunity to see for yourself whether a career in information security could be a good match for your unique goals and interests.

An introductory cybersecurity course might cover topics like:

  • Cybersecurity tools and attack vectors

  • Security compliance and industry standards

  • Operating system, network, and data security

  • Incident response

  • Penetration testing

  • Cyber threat intelligence

Start with a broad overview, and you’ll have a better idea of what skills you already have, what area of cybersecurity you might want to work in, and what skills you need to build to get there. 

IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate

Start building job-ready skills in security with this online certificate program from the industry leaders at IBM that you can complete in less than six months.

Learn how to use common security tools, like SIEMs and packet analyzers, in a simulated virtual environment. Apply what you’ve learned by investigating a real-world security breach and giving recommendations for how it could have been prevented. 

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2. Evaluate your passion for technology.

There’s a difference between difficult and challenging. Learning cybersecurity can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be difficult, especially if you’re passionate about technology. Nurture a curiosity for the technologies you’re working with, and you might find that challenging skills become easier. 

Sometimes just the act of learning is enough to build enthusiasm about a topic. If you’re someone who thrives off the enthusiasm of others, getting involved in a community of other security professionals (Tip 7) could also help.

Maybe after taking a course or two, you’ll discover that your passions lie elsewhere. That’s okay too. Cybersecurity can be an exciting, challenging, and well-paying profession, but it’s not for everyone. 

3. Learn a little every day. 

Building cybersecurity skills doesn’t have to mean dropping everything for a degree or full-time bootcamp. A little time each day can lead to big results. Start by setting aside 15 minutes each day to focus on cybersecurity. Plan out your learning time, and try to make it the same time every day. 

Besides setting aside a consistent time to learn, it’s also a good idea to plan what you want to accomplish in each session. Be specific (for example “watch two lecture videos,” “take Lesson 3 quiz,” or “read Chapter Four”).

4. Become an ethical hacker.

One of the best ways to learn is by doing. In cybersecurity, one way to get firsthand experience using the tools and techniques of the trade is to practice ethical hacking. 

What is ethical hacking?

The EC-Council, provider of the popular Certified Ethical Hacker certification, defines ethical hacking as “the process of detecting vulnerabilities in an application, system, or organization’s infrastructure that an attacker can use to exploit an individual or organization.” 

In other works, ethical hacking is a legal, authorized to break into a computer system, network, application, or database.

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Several free websites allow you to develop your cybersecurity skill set through legal, gamified experiences. Try these to get started:

As you continue to build skills, you might look into bug bounty programs, where companies offer cash bonuses to independent security researchers who find and report security flaws. This not only allows you to test your skills in the real world, but also creates opportunities to network with other security professionals. Find a list of bounties on sites like Bugcrowd and HackerOne

Interested in ethical hacking? Read more about how to become a penetration tester.

5. Practice in simulated environments.

Many cybersecurity courses include virtual labs where you can practice applying your skills using real security tools in simulated environments. It’s convenient to have these labs ready to go as part of a structured course, but you can get as much practice as you want by setting up your own virtual lab. A basic lab environment will typically include three elements:

  1. A cloud environment to host virtual machines

  2. A target machine to launch attacks on

  3. An attack box, or machine you will use to plan and perform attacks

For a more detailed walkthrough, here’s a guide to setting up your own cybersecurity lab.

6. Mix it up with workplace skills.

If you need a break from technical skill-building, spend some time working on your workplace skills. 

As a cybersecurity expert, you’ll often need to communicate complex concepts to people who might not have a technical background. You may also work cross-functionally with other teams, like legal or public relations. Many cybersecurity roles involve making key decisions on the spot. This means hiring managers look for candidates with critical thinking skills.

You’ll find plenty of resources out there for improving workplace skills, from books to blogs to podcasts. If you’re looking for a structured approach, here are some courses to get you started:

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Communication Skills for Engineers

Rice University

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Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age

University of Michigan

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Computational Thinking for Problem Solving

University of Pennsylvania

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Teamwork Skills: Communicating Effectively in Groups

University of Colorado Boulder

7. Get involved in the cybersecurity community.

You might find it energizing to join a group of people who are also interested in cybersecurity. Joining a forum or other online community also doubles as a resource where you can ask questions, find motivation, network, and possibly learn about job opportunities. If you’re not yet ready to join a professional organization, Reddit might be a good place to start. Here are some of the more popular subreddits:

8. Earn a certification.

Preparing for a cybersecurity certification exam can double as an effective way to develop your skill set. Plus, having a certification can enhance your resume and make you more competitive as a job candidate. You might end up needing one for certain jobs, anyway. Nearly six in 10 cybersecurity job postings request a certification, according to data from Burning Glass Technologies [1].

These are the 10 cybersecurity certifications that showed up most frequently in job listings (as of June 2021).

9. Apply to companies that provide training.

Cybersecurity threats and technologies are always changing. Successful cybersecurity professionals are often lifetime learners, evolving their own skills as the threat landscape evolves. 

As you look toward getting a job in cybersecurity, consider companies that invest in ongoing training. This could not only save you money, but also personal time. When ongoing training is part of your role, it could be at the company’s expense and on work time.

This is a good thing to ask when it’s your turn to ask questions during an interview, as it can demonstrate your willingness to learn.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Related articles

Article sources

1. Burning Glass Technologies. "Recruiting Watchers for the Virtual Walls: The State of Cybersecurity Hiring, https://www.burning-glass.com/research-project/cybersecurity/." Accessed September 20, 2021.

2. Cyber Seek. "Cybersecurity Supply/Demand Heat Map, https://www.cyberseek.org/heatmap.html." Accessed September 20, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Information Security Analysts, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm." Accessed September 20, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Sep 21, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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