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The last decade or so has given rise to some of the biggest hacks of all time, exposing the vulnerability that comes with being online. Take, for instance, the massive Equifax hack which occurred in 2017. Hackers managed to make off with millions of people’s sensitive data.

Such hacks have slowly opened our eyes to the reality that’s staring us in the face:

Big data may be useful, but it’s not without risk.

Fortunately, the tech industry is making efforts to mitigate this risk. One of the most effective ways of doing so is by investing in offensive security.

And there’s no offensive security without a penetration tester or two.

What, however, is a penetration tester? Further still, is the career path of a penetration tester one that you might want to consider walking?

Continue reading to find out.

What Is a Penetration Tester?

So what is a penetration tester? Well, here’s the simple answer first:

Penetration testers identify security vulnerabilities to help businesses make needed changes to their cybersecurity protocols.

Of course, this job description sounds a lot like the various other cybersecurity roles out there. Many of those roles focus on vulnerability assessment. As a result, distinguishing between these other roles and penetration testing is crucial.

What, then, is the distinguishing feature of a penetration tester’s job? One word: Hacking.

That’s right. Penetration testers hack systems and applications for a living. But they do this only to help companies discover and fix major security vulnerabilities.

The hacking penetration testers engage in is known as “ethical hacking.”

In any case, penetration testers go beyond simple vulnerability assessments. They identify and exploit the vulnerabilities they find.

How Do Penetration Testers Conduct Ethical Hacking?

The term “hacking” has a negative connotation in many circles. That’s primarily because we seldom hear the word used in a positive context. As a result, the term “ethical hacking” might be confusing to some.

So what is ethical hacking?

Let’s be clear that it’s not hacking done for a social, economic, or political purpose.

We know that you’ve probably seen a movie or two in which some epic hacker reveals a massive government conspiracy. Well, penetration testers don’t engage in such hacking. Instead, they live by three core ideas:

  • Authorization
  • Motivation
  • Intent

Three Core Ideals of Ethical Hacking

Let’s take a second to discuss the three core ideals a penetration tester keeps in mind. We’ll start with the first of the three: authorization.

Penetration testers must always get permission before hacking an application or systems. Without permission, their activities become illegal.

Their motivation also matters. If, for instance, a penetration tester has political or economic motivations for hacking, their work is no longer ethical.

Of course, motivation and intent are closely related. As a result, it follows that if a penetration tester’s motivations are unethical, the intent might be unethical as well.

All of this to say:

If you’re trying to become a penetration tester to pull off some theatrical political hack, think again. Penetration testers hack for the good of their clients and only with authorization.

How Do You Become a Penetration Tester?

Now that we’ve established what a penetration tester does, let’s talk a bit about how to become a penetration tester. In many ways, the first steps are not unlike those of other careers.

The first step revolves around receiving some sort of education in cybersecurity. Some aspiring penetration testers, for instance, pursue degrees in cybersecurity.

After you’ve received an education, you’ll need to work on racking up the necessary experience. Understand, however, that this experience isn’t necessarily going to be entirely related to penetration testing.

You might, for instance, start off in a position that focuses on vulnerability assessment. After a few years, you might then move up to a position which emphasizes penetration testing.

We should also note that there are a wide variety of career paths which can lead to a job as a penetration tester. You can, for example, work as an engineer or a security administrator before becoming a penetration tester.

What Skills Do You Need as a Penetration Tester?

Education and experience are great, but they don’t always tell you much about the specific skills you’ll need to enter into a profession. What skills, then, do you need to succeed as a penetration tester?

While you’ll need many skills, there are a few which are absolutely essential to penetration testers:

  1. Coding
  2. Business knowledge
  3. Technical writing

But why are these three skills so important? Let’s take a look.

Coding

This skill is probably the most expected of the three listed here. People do, after all, think of hackers as computer whizzes, and coding is the proverbial sign of computer mastery — and better pay.

But here’s the thing:

Penetration testers don’t just have to know how to code. In fact, it’s more important that they understand how to find vulnerabilities in code.

That is to say, penetration testers don’t always have to know how to write complex applications. They must instead be able to interpret them in order to exploit bugs and other weaknesses.

Business Knowledge

We know what you’re thinking:

Why would a penetration tester need business knowledge?

The answer is simple if you think about it. Penetration testers look for vulnerabilities that would put businesses at risk. In order to do so, however, they must know where to begin their searches.

And the only way to know where to look is by drawing on their knowledge of business and how technology poses risk to businesses in certain industries.

If, for instance, a penetration tester exploits a bug for a company, the tester should be able to detail the economic impact it could have on the business and its customers.

Technical Writing

Recall that penetration testers should be able to detail the impacts of exploited vulnerabilities. Well, those testers must do so by writing up official reports.

This step might sound boring, but it could be the most important step. Unlike the actual exploitation, this step emphasizes communicating with clients.

Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to see why penetration testers must know how to write well. It is, after all, important that clients understand the implications of the vulnerabilities penetration testers uncover.

Want to Put Your Hacking Skills to Use?

If you’re interested in hacking, the job of a penetration tester could be for you. The job might require a wide variety of skills, but it can be fulfilling to those who can’t get enough of weeding out vulnerabilities.

That said, why not take the first step towards your career goals today? You can start by looking into a degree in cybersecurity.