What Does a Pentester Do? (With Steps on How to Become One)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 10 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Pentesters are professionals who protect company systems and networks from attacks. With the advance in technology, organisations can invest in these professionals to improve data security. If you're interested in becoming a penetration tester (pentester), understanding the role and the requirements may help you make a more informed career decision. In this article, we answer the question 'what does a pentester do?', explain how to become one, discuss with the annual salary expectations, explore the skills required in this role and review some frequently asked questions.

What does a pentester do?

The answer to the question, 'what does a pentester do?' is these professionals protect an organisation's information systems by simulating cyber attacks on their computer systems and networks. These tests help determine the security flaws in the system, determine the system's weakness and suggest a proper measure to strengthen the system. They do this to prevent the system from being attacked by hackers. Other duties of a pentester may include:

  • conducting a physical security assessment

  • conducting security audits

  • writing and presenting information systems security reports

  • developing new ways of testing system weakness

  • advising the management on the security measure employed by the organisation

Related: 10 Computer Science Careers (With Salaries and Duties)

How to become a pentester

Here are four steps on how to become a pentester:

1. Get a bachelor's degree

To become a pentester, it may be a requirement to obtain a bachelor's degree in computer science, cyber security, information technology (IT) or any IT-related field. A bachelor's degree equips you with the knowledge and skills that may be useful in your career. The coursework may cover Linux and Microsoft operating systems, networking, Python programming, database and information security. A degree in computer science or IT can take up to three years to complete.

2. Gain a certification

Certifications help you develop your career further. They can equip you with extra knowledge and skills to improve your competency in this role. They can also simulate real-life encounters, which may give you the necessary experience to identify and handle attacks on company systems or networks. Some examples of pentesting certifications include:

  • CEH (certified ethical hacking) certification: This certification helps the learner identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities in a system that attackers may use to gain access to the system. CEH certification holders are also taught how to use different security tools to help them do their duties.

  • CPT (certified penetration tester) certification: The Certified Penetration Tester credential is for security professionals whose employment entails examining target networks and systems for security flaws. This certification aims to teach the type of attacks, how to perform vulnerability assessment on systems and networks and strengthen the system to minimise attacks.

  • ECSA (EC Council certified security analyst) certification: The EC-Council Certified Security Analyst (ECSA) course is a practical learning program that includes labs and exercises that simulate real-life circumstances. This certification equips you with the skills and knowledge to uncover some threats your organisation may be facing.

  • OSCP (offensive security certified professional) certification: OSCP is an ethical hacking certification that covers penetration testing approach and how to use the tools included with the Kali Linux distribution. The OSCP is a practical penetration testing certification that requires holders to attack and penetrate various live devices in a controlled lab setting.

3. Gain experience

After completing your studies, you can start looking for a job as entry-level security personnel or an intern. Collaborating with other experienced pentesters may provide you with first-hand experience and unique advice. Gaining relevant experience may also be beneficial when applying for job opportunities in different organisations.

4. Enrol in a master's degree program

A master's degree can help you gain more knowledge and may also help you secure a managerial post in your organisation. A master's degree in cyber security may cover topics such as ethical hacking, cryptology and digital forensics. Another importance of pursuing further education is that it may increase your chances of earning a higher salary. A master's degree in cyber security can take two years to complete.

Skills for a pentester

Here are some hard skills that may be essential in this role:

Programming

It may be a requirement for pentesters to have coding skills, especially using the Python programming language. Most of the programs and security projects such as SQLmap and Scapy were written in Python, making it one of the most powerful languages in information security. Programming skills may also help pentesters analyse programs and computer systems and determine their vulnerabilities within this role.

Networking

A pentester might require an understanding and some experience with networks, open system interconnection (OSI) and other network protocols, such as transmission control protocol (TCP). It's important to know where the information passes through before it reaches the destination. It's equally important to know who can access the information and how the network protocol work.

Operating system

It's typically a requirement to know how to work on different operating systems in this role, such as the Microsoft operating system. This knowledge can help a pentester set up the operating systems, locate crucial configuration files, log files and execute network and system diagnostics. Pentesters are also often familiar with each system's permissions and access controls and various vulnerabilities and attack methodologies.

System administration

Pentesters with skills in system administration can administer Ubuntu or Microsoft systems for their distribution and also configure them correctly. They can also write commands on the command line of different operating systems. They may also locate files and carry out system diagnostics.

Related: What Is a System Administrator and What Is Their Role?

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) gathering

This is the ability to find out more information about a person or an organisation by gathering information from public sources. Pentesters may perform an OSINT on a subject to determine the phone numbers of the employees, email addresses, host names and IP addresses of the computers. Examples of the sources used to gather this information include domain naming system (DNS) records, search engines and social media platforms.

Cryptography

Performing encryption to secure the communication between the sender and the receiver is essential in this role. Pentesters use this tool for cryptography, type of encryption and decrypt data. Other areas in cryptography where a pentester can focus their expertise are hashing, obfuscation, symmetric and asymmetric encryption and encoding.

Related: How to Become a Cryptographer in 4 Steps (With FAQs)

Communication

These professionals have excellent written, verbal and presentation abilities. These skills enable pentesters to ask relevant and accurate questions to the client. Excellent communication skills may also help them communicate correctly amongst their teams, which may help them solve complex problems.

Related: Communication Skills: Definitions and Examples

Integrity

Pentesters typically have an excellent knowledge of hacking that enables them to access the organisations' computer systems. Integrity may help them maintain the accuracy, trustworthiness and consistency of data. It may also help to ensure that the data is in its original form.

Approaches to pentesting

Penetration testing approaches may differ depending on the information provided to the pentester. The three main approaches to pentesting are:

  • Black Box (external): The pentester has little or no information about the IT infrastructure in the organisation. The pentester assumes the role of an uninformed hacker to simulate a cyber attack.

  • White Box (internal): The pentester has full access to the source code and knowledge of the IT infrastructure in the organisation. It conducts a detailed security audit of an organisation's systems to provide the pentester with as much detail as possible.

  • Gray Box: The pentester has partial access to the internal IT infrastructure. They may begin with user privileges on a host, then later escalate to a domain admin.

Salary for a pentester

The national average salary of a pentester is $118,592 per year. Although the salary may differ depending on some factors. These factors may include the level of experience, qualification, location and company size.

Frequently asked questions about pentesting

Here are some frequently asked questions about this career:

What is ethical hacking?

It's an attempt to gain unauthorised access to the system to determine its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You may also call them white hat hackers because they have no bad intentions and abide by the organisation's rules and regulations. They can hire external ethical hackers or employ them as full-time employees of the organisation.

How regular can an organisation carry out pentesting?

Organisations may carry out penetration testing regularly, at least once a year. Regular penetration testing helps them develop efficient security policies and protects them from future attacks by strengthening the system. It also helps in reducing network downtime.

What are the types of pentesting?

There are different types of penetration testing. They include social engineering, web application pentesting and network penetration testing. Organisations may perform one or more types of penetration testing depending on the cost and your organisation's need.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location. Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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