A penetration tester works at a desk among other cybersecurity professionals.

How to Become a Penetration Tester as Part of an IT Team


Ongoing and radical data breaches and cyber attacks highlight cybersecurity’s importance to protect digital networks across all industries. Cybersecurity professionals apply a broad range of skills and methods to protect personal and company data. One role gaining prominence in this industry is the penetration tester. These information technology (IT) professionals use their strong knowledge of system networks and coding languages to hack computer systems, networks, or web applications—sometimes within their own organizations—to uncover vulnerabilities prior to attacks.

What Is a Penetration Tester?

Penetration testers, also known as ethical hackers and pen testers, apply advanced programming skills in system administration and coding languages across multiple platforms. In testing network vulnerabilities, they provide security insights and tangible steps to mitigate future cyber attacks.

Aspiring penetration testers require a deep knowledge of technology that includes a proven command of coding languages and operational platforms. A successful penetration tester draws on a combination of formal study and continuous technology adaptation to generate reports and work within a larger team. Penetration testers may work in a consultancy role, a tech company, or the IT department of a larger business.

What Does a Penetration Tester Do?

Penetration testers search for vulnerabilities in a company’s information systems. Once vulnerabilities are found, penetration testers help develop solutions that fix the problems and prevent damage caused by cyber threats. Penetration testers work within a wide range of information systems, such as websites, computer networks, digital systems, and data storage systems.

The key strategy penetration testers deploy is “ethical hacking.” By using this tactic, the penetration tester simulates hacking strategies that are used by cyber criminals to exploit system vulnerabilities. During these simulated attacks, the penetration tester will document the issues they discover and the methods they used to detect the vulnerability, providing vital data that can help eliminate weaknesses in a company’s cybersecurity strategies.

A penetration tester can help a business keep data of various types from being exposed. This data may range from a company’s financial records to a health care facility’s patient information. Keeping data safe and systems free of breaches can pay residual dividends for a business, such as retaining a strong sense of confidence and trust between them and their clientele.

Steps to Become a Penetration Tester

The path to becoming a penetration tester varies, but achieving this career does involve some standard steps.

Academic Preparation             

Individuals who are interested in how to become a penetration tester initially should pursue an undergraduate degree in a related field such as cybersecurity, system administration, computer science, or IT. These degrees offer students a strong understanding of the foundational science, techniques, and systems that support this role.

While an undergraduate degree serves as a strong starting point, an advanced degree offers even more mobility and access to higher-level positions. For example, a master’s in cybersecurity is equated with having greater credentials, which may open the door to new opportunities. As digital protection is vital to virtually every enterprise in any industry, an advanced degree helps penetration testers gain the skills to remain on the cutting edge of cybersecurity.

Acquire the Right Certifications

Many in the cybersecurity industry, including those pursuing careers in penetration testing, choose to earn an ethical hacking certification. Many organizations including the U.S. Department of Defense and private companies within the healthcare, finance, and technology industries require their tech staff to hold a Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) qualification. To earn this designation, individuals must pass an exam that covers core techniques and skills. In addition to earning CEH certification, some digital security experts pursue a Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC) or security analysis certification.

Gain On-the-Job Experience

As the IT industry continues its rapid evolution, many growth possibilities exist within cybersecurity. On-the-job experience in critical areas such as network administration, software development, and systems engineering provide the skills to assume more advanced roles in managing and overseeing cybersecurity efforts.

Penetration Tester Salary

Penetration testers earn a median annual salary of around $85,300, according to the compensation website PayScale. While this number represents the median, it should be noted that salary amounts can be impacted by various factors, such as education level and years of experience. Job location may also play a contributing role, as a city with a higher cost of living may offer a higher annual salary than a location with a lower cost of living.

The Future of Penetration Testing

Recognition of the importance of a penetration tester in cybersecurity increases demand for these advanced IT professionals. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the information security analyst occupation is projected to grow by 31% from 2019 to 2029, compared with 4% for all occupations.

This anticipated growth is largely due to the limited IT safety options companies and organizations have at their disposal. The current workforce simply doesn’t have the skills or manpower to properly address expanding cybersecurity issues. In fact, Forbes reports as many as 3.5 million cybersecurity positions will go unfilled by 2021 as a result of the talent gap.

Job security for penetration testers is likely to remain strong as more and more critical communications and business systems move online. In a continuously changing IT ecosystem, corporations must ensure the security of their digital assets.

Learn More

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has maintained a leadership position in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, the university delivers relevant and applicable curricula that enable students to make a positive impact in the workplace and communities.

Norwich University has a tradition of providing values-based education, where structured, disciplined, and rigorous studies create a challenging and rewarding experience. Online programs, such as the Master of Science in Cybersecurity, offer a comprehensive curriculum that supports cybersecurity careers.

Norwich University is designated as a Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security. The cybersecurity degree program offers five unique concentrations. Each is designed to provide an in-depth examination of policies, procedures, and structures that drive excellence in information assurance.

Learn more today about the Master of Science in Cybersecurity degree program.


Recommended Readings

How to Become a Cyber Security Engineer
Information Assurance vs. Information Security
The 5 Pillars of Information Assurance


Global Penetration Testing Market 2018 Swot Analysis, Opportunities, Segmentation and Forecast to 2025, MarketWatch
The Cybersecurity Talent Gap Is an Industry Crisis, Forbes
What Is a Penetration Test and Why Would I Need One for My Company, Forbes
What Is Penetration Testing? Cisco
Master of Science in Cybersecurity, Norwich University
Average Penetration Tester Salary, PayScale
The Cybersecurity 202: Here Are the 55 Things the U.S. Government Most Needs to Protect Against Cyberattacks, The Washington Post
Information Security Analysts, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Stop. Think. Connect., U.S. Department of Homeland Security

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