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How to become a cyber security Penetration Tester

by Chloe Baird
Posted: March 11, 2021

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If you’ve thought about joining the cyber security industry, now’s the time to do it. Demand is continuously growing for skilled cyber security professionals, and there are plenty of career paths you can choose to follow if you have the right skills and traits.  

Penetration Tester is one career path you could pursue with the right kind of training and skills. Also referred to as a Pen Tester or an ethical hacker, a Penetration Tester is someone whose job it is to crack into a computer system. But unlike cyber criminals who attempt to bypass cyber security measures for illegal purposes, a Penetration Tester does so on behalf of a company as a way to expose flaws and find solutions to weak cyber security measures. 

Read on to find out how you can become a Penetration Tester, what skills you need and how you can get qualified to work in the growing cyber security industry.  

Penetration tester

What is penetration testing in cyber security? 

A penetration test is also sometimes called a pen test. This is a simulated cyber attack against a computer system to check for vulnerabilities – essentially, to see if its defences can be penetrated.  

Pen testing involves trying to penetrate several different application programs to uncover vulnerabilities. Pen testing isn’t just about trying to find weaknesses; it’s about finding weaknesses and then uncovering the different ways they can be exploited. The insights gained by the pen test can be used to strengthen and improve security measures against future cyber threats.  

A Penetration Tester is someone who carries out penetration tests on behalf of a business or an external cyber security agency. Their main goal is to plan and implement tests and uncover cyber threats before they happen. Sometimes a weakness may not be obvious. So Pen Testers need to combine creativity with analytical thinking to discover flaws and how they could be exploited by cyber criminals.  

White hat hackers and black hat hackers 

A Penetration Tester might also be known as a white hat hacker or an ethical hacker. A black hat hacker, on the other hand, is someone who penetrates computer systems for criminal reasons – such as extorting money, spying, stealing sensitive information or for other illegal reasons. As a Penetration Tester, these are the kind of people you’re trying to protect the computer system from.  

Penetration Testers need to stay one step ahead of cyber criminals who are trying to undermine a system. As technology and cyber crime evolves in new and unexpected ways, the job of a Penetration Tester is suited to people who are able to think outside the box, are analytically minded and who relish a challenge. 

What are the main responsibilities of a Penetration Tester? 

1. Plan, develop and execute penetration tests 

As a Pen Tester, a big part of your job will involve designing and implementing pen tests. Some of these tests might prove successful, some may not. But the most important part of these simulations is to continuously evaluate the effectiveness of the existing cyber security measures.  

Sometimes, you may also need to plan out social engineering penetration tests, which could involve phishing phone calls or emails. 

2. Analyse penetration test findings 

After you’ve completed the test, you’ll need to assess the results. This may also involve determining what the root cause is, and keeping an eye out for any repeated issues that appear over multiple tests.  

3. Create reports and provide recommendations 

After a penetration test has been conducted, you’ll need to write up a report detailing the test and its outcome. You’ll also need to outline your recommendations on how to improve security measures. Then, you’ll need to present this report key stakeholders. Depending on your level of experience and seniority, you may be the one liaising directly with management and providing advice. 

Penetration test

What kind of skills do I need to become a Penetration Tester? 

There are a variety of key hard and soft skills required by Penetration Testers. These are some of the skills you’ll need to begin a successful career as a Pen Tester. 

1. Detailed understanding of operating systems 

As a Penetration Tester, you’ll need a complete understanding of the system you’re attempting to hack. Remember, you’re up against cyber criminals who know these systems inside and out and know how to exploit them. 

2. Up-to-date knowledge of cyber threats 

Cyber criminals are constantly thinking up new ways to exploit and manipulate systems for their own gain. As cyber threats are constantly evolving, you need to make sure that you’re up to date with the latest cyber security news and that you’re able to think outside the box when it comes to pen testing. 

3. Ability to write script or code 

Job candidates who already know how to script or code are valuable to employers because writing your own script or code for an assessment saves a lot of time. Some of the most common languages in this line of work are Python, PowerShell and Bash. 

4. Communication skills 

You may find yourself interacting with people outside the IT department, which means you need to be able to translate cyber security jargon into comprehensible language that gets your point across. Otherwise, how can you expect people to act on your recommendations if they don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them? 

5. Insatiable curiosity 

As a Pen Tester, you never stop learning. You need to always be looking for new ways to learn, grow, and expand your knowledge base. You also need to be constantly searching for and identifying new flaws or weaknesses. This means going above and beyond to discover vulnerabilities beyond tool suites and always keeping an open mind when it comes to learning new things. 

6. Unshakeable ethics 

Even if you’ve never thought about using your powers for evil instead of good, you still need to think like the bad guys in order to execute detailed pen tests. This means thinking like a Black Hat Hacker while still maintaining your rock-solid ethics.  

cybersecurity testers

Is Penetration Tester a good career choice? 

According to Payscale, the average salary for a Penetration Tester is around $85,772 per year. This figure is a little lower for those who are just starting out, and higher for those with more experience. 

Depending on the size of the business and the industry, a company may hire Penetration Testerto work in-house. Typically, big companies that deal with large amounts of sensitive data are more likely to hire internal cyber security experts.  

Alternatively, a Penetration Tester could work for an external cyber security agency that provides penetration testing services to clients.  

Following a career as a Penetration Tester could also lead to other opportunities, such as Cyber Security Engineer - where you construct systems that already have cyber security measures built into them. And as many people who join the cyber security industry have a natural thirst for knowledge, you never know where your learning opportunities could lead you. 

Do I need a qualification to become a Penetration Tester? 

Some companies will value experience over a university qualification, but to get started you may want to consider obtaining an industry certification 

Most people don’t begin their first role in cyber security as a Penetration Tester, but will start out as a Cyber Security Analyst or in a similar role. From here, you can gain hands-on cyber security experience and use this to expand your skillset and build on your knowledge base.  

The cyber security industry offers a variety of career opportunities, and Penetration Tester is just one such path you could choose from. Beginning in an entry-level cyber security role will mean that you’ll have time to expand your knowledge base and see for yourself the kind of work involved in pen testing. Then, you can begin to hone your skills and begin building up a specialised pen testing skillset.  

Where can I study a cyber security course online? 

A great place to start is with the Certified Cybersecurity Professional short courseThis online cyber security course will teach you the essential skills and knowledge you need to begin a career in cyber security.  

As you progress through the course, you’ll work your way towards three industry-recognised CompTIA+ certificates. These certifications are accredited by International Organisation for Standardisation and the American National Standards Institute (ISO/ANSI) and cover CompTIA A+, CompTIA Networking+ and CompTIA Security+

While this is an online cybersecurity course, there are set start dates. This is because you will be studying alongside a cohort of other students. You can track your progress compared to your cohort, and discuss ideas and challenges with them as you progress through the course.

Make sure you don’t miss out on our next intake date! 





Chloe Baird

Chloe is an Open Colleges alumnus who now works full time for OC as a Content and Copywriting Specialist. She is passionate about encouraging others to pursue their goals through education.

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