A Day in the Life of an Incident Responder

Updated October 4, 2022

What does a day in the life of an incident responder look like? Read on to learn the main responsibilities of the role and hear from an incident responder in the field.

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Incident responders use carefully developed techniques and protocols to respond to and investigate cybersecurity breaches and attacks. These strategies contain damage, minimize financial and data losses, and identify possible perpetrators.

The 2021 (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce Study reviewed the evolving nature of global cybersecurity threats and concluded that the international cybersecurity workforce needed to increase by 65% to address current protection gaps. Incident response offers a common source of entry-level employment in the cybersecurity industry as a crucial frontline need.

This guide covers a typical day in the life of an incident responder. It explores common and nontraditional duties, along with an overview of educational paths and additional resources.

What Is an Incident Responder?

Incident responders also work under several other titles. According to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, these include:

  • Incident handler
  • Incident response analyst
  • Intrusion analyst

In most settings, an incident response analyst's primary duties include monitoring networks and acting on alerts related to suspicious activity. When a security breach or cyberattack occurs, the incident handler implements response protocols. Frontline responders also coordinate the efforts of supporting personnel.

Intrusion analysts round up and analyze artifacts and data related to the attack. They then present their findings in written reports.

For many employers, a candidate's specific skill set matters more than their formal training. Still, most incident responders have bachelor's degrees in general or specialized branches of computer science. Others hold industry-standard professional certifications in cybersecurity, information security, or incident response.

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What an Incident Responder Does

Incident responders protect their employers' computing networks and digital assets. The role is popular with entry-level professionals looking to establish themselves and usually functions within dedicated incident response teams. These teams typically consist of junior and senior incident handlers who report to an experienced lead investigator.

Some professionals focus on climbing the incident response team ladder. They can begin as junior responders before gaining the necessary experience to move into senior roles. Over time, they may assume leadership positions within incident response teams.

In other cases, incident response analysts move into related branches of cybersecurity and develop a greater breadth of experience. For instance, they may graduate from incident response to penetration testing and ethical hacking. Over time, this can lead to high-level roles in consulting and cybersecurity architecture.

Intrusion analysts benefit from strong attention to detail and up-to-date knowledge of cyberthreats and hacking techniques. As members of collaborative teams, they also need effective interpersonal skills and the ability to collaborate effectively. The following subsections explain standard and atypical duties in greater detail.

Standard Duties of Incident Responders

  • Network Monitoring: Intrusion analysts actively and passively monitor computing networks and data sources. They maintain organizations' defensive readiness and analyze potential security issues to determine whether a response is required. If an event escalates, the incident responder notifies the necessary cybersecurity personnel.
  • Respond to Alerts: Incident handlers function as the cybersecurity equivalent of a first responder. They act to contain the threat and minimize its operational, logistical, and financial impacts. To do so, incident response analysts must act in keeping with established organizational procedures.
  • Coordinate Response Strategy: Response efforts typically escalate when major security breaches occur. In such cases, senior intrusion analysts may move beyond simple response roles to coordinate collaborative efforts to address the threat. Responders in leadership and management positions determine response priorities and assign personnel to specific containment or remediation tasks.
  • Incident Investigation: Following an incident, intrusion analysts collect and analyze discovered data and digital artifacts related to the event. This may involve multiple forms of media, data, and devices, including volatile media. Investigations must follow established operating procedures to ensure the proper documentation and preservation of evidence.
  • Creating Reports: After resolving a security incident, intrusion analysts create written reports reviewing the actions taken during the response. Incident response analysts may also contribute to written organizational policy and guidance documents.

Nonstandard Duties for Incident Responders

  • Professional Development and Training: Cybersecurity professionals draw on an evolving set of advanced technologies in their work. Incident response analysts regularly upgrade their proficiency with emerging tools. Some employers also encourage and provide support to incident responders looking to obtain new professional certifications or upgrade existing credentials.
  • Guide Organizational Policy: Organizations typically maintain incident response plans. Incident responders may help develop these plans before a cybersecurity event or update them in their aftermath. These plans must adhere to a standard set of best practices. Thus, incident response analysts also require a working knowledge of such standards.
  • Technical Support: Within organizations, members of technical and nontechnical teams sometimes need cybersecurity insights. Incident response specialists can provide necessary technical support and training.
  • Trend Analysis: Incident response analysts and other cybersecurity professionals must stay up to date on current trends in the threat landscape. Trend analysis involves collecting and analyzing data from various sources to understand evolving and emerging threats. Team members then develop and test responses to potential security events.
  • Investigation Support: Intrusion analysts sometimes participate in criminal investigations and the prosecution of cybercriminals. In these contexts, they may need to communicate relevant information and findings to law enforcement officials. In rare cases, incident response analysts may provide testimony as expert witnesses.

A Typical Day for an Incident Responder

Experienced professionals often say there is no such thing as a typical day in the life of an incident responder. Duties and responsibilities differ from day to day. Standard activities depend mainly on whether the responder must deal with a security incident or active investigation.

If a security incident occurs, the incident response analyst will immediately act to identify the nature of the threat. Responders seek signature techniques or other clues that might indicate a possible perpetrator or motive. Their primary goal revolves around isolating the threat's reach and limiting its potential damage.

In most cases, senior members of the incident response team handle strategic decisions. For instance, a cyberattacker may demand ransom in exchange for releasing hacked files or data.

Senior incident response team members liaise with other decision-makers and stakeholders in deciding whether to pay the ransom.

Meanwhile, incident responders mainly focus on delegating and carrying out technical tasks related to containing and remediating cyberattacks. Following the acute phase of an attack, this may involve attempts to recover corrupted data or reverting to backups. Responders also collect, document, and analyze artifacts and other digital clues left behind by cyberattackers.

Responders also monitor networks, develop organizational policy, and aid efforts to address vulnerabilities. They write incident reports and may relay their findings to other stakeholders or investigators.

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Where Incident Responders Work

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes incident handlers within its general category for information security analysts. Data compiled by the BLS in 2020 cited the following as the five most common employment sectors for these professionals:

Firms providing IT and cybersecurity expertise to enterprise clients represent the largest employment sector for incident responders. Banks, financial institutions, and insurance companies typically employ incident handlers on a full-time, in-house basis.

The BLS also breaks down location data in its occupation profiles. One metric tracks the location quotient of information security analysts. High location quotients indicate high levels of employment density for that particular profession.

As of May 2021, the five states with the highest infosec analyst employment density were, in descending order:

  • Virginia
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Maryland

Meanwhile, the five metropolitan areas employing the most infosec analysts in May 2021 were:

  • Washington D.C.
  • New York
  • Dallas
  • Baltimore
  • Atlanta

Generally, the BLS reported that infosec analysts earned the most money working in states with large populations and big cities. However, that was not universally true. States including Iowa and New Mexico ranked among the top-paying destinations for infosec analysts in May 2021. Neither state has a particularly large population, nor does either have a city with a population of one million or more.

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Should You Become an Incident Responder?

Companies report difficulty finding and retaining qualified cybersecurity professionals. ISACA's State of Cybersecurity 2022 report polled more than 2,000 cybersecurity providers around the world. Of those respondents, 63% said they had current cybersecurity openings they were unable to fill. Another 62% stated their cybersecurity teams were short-staffed.

These findings represent broader industry trends. Cybersecurity Ventures predicts 3.5 million open cybersecurity positions globally by 2025. Right now is an excellent time to launch a cybersecurity career. Employers remain understaffed, and the increasingly digital world constantly faces new threats.

Acquiring the technical knowledge and field experience required to be an effective incident responder takes time. Candidates should prepare for sharp learning curves — especially individuals with little-to-no computer science background knowledge.

Many tech insiders consider incident response a strong starting point for cybersecurity careers. After acquiring experience, responders can pursue roles as:

  • Penetration tester
  • Ethical hacker
  • Security analyst
  • Security consultant

Over the long term, these positions can lead to high-profile and lucrative roles in cybersecurity management, engineering, and security architecture.

How to Prepare for a Career as an Incident Responder

Incident response analysts have multiple career training options. Many employers look for candidates with traditional credentials, such as a bachelor's or master's degree in computer science, cybersecurity, or a related field.

Alternately, learners can acquire job-ready technical skills in compact, intensive programs known as cybersecurity bootcamps. These programs teach highly targeted subject matter but typically take much less time to complete than a traditional degree.

Employers also tend to favor candidates who hold universally recognized, industry-standard cybersecurity certifications. Obtaining certifications offers another alternative path: Anyone with the requisite knowledge can take and pass a certification exam. Thus, self-teaching or a combination of formal and independent education can lead to success.

The following section contains links to pages with complete, detailed information on career preparation.

Learn More About Incident Responders

1

What Is an Incident Responder?

Incident responders provide frontline protection for their employers' computer networks and digital assets. Learn about the profession in detail and explore its relationship to other cybersecurity roles.
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1

How to Become an Incident Responder

Aspiring incident response analysts can follow multiple paths to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. This page explains learning options in detail.
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Salary and Career Outlook for Incident Responders

This page covers job growth projections, hiring trends, and earning potential for incident response analysts.
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Incident Responder Certifications

Multiple industry-standard professional certifications apply to incident response roles. Compare providers, explore options, and get up-to-date information on exam eligibility and preparation.
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Professional Spotlight: Isaac Rego

What previous cyber-related (or STEM) experience did you have, if any, and what prompted your journey to become an incident responder?

My first informal experience in STEM was around age 14, when I discovered an interest in Xbox modding, specifically with the game Halo. I was fascinated by how the experience of the game could change by editing a few characters in a hex editor and using the tools developed by the community to do even more.

I learned about the security of the Xbox; how the BIOS, EEPROM, and hard drive all work to prevent unauthorized access. Mistakes I made along the way forced me to learn how to problem-solve if I wanted to get my Xbox working again. This was the beginning of a path that led me to where I am today.

If you specialize in a particular subject or work in a particular industry, what prompted this choice?

I see the role of an incident responder is to be a "jack of all trades." We have no control over what an adversary may employ during an attack — we have to be prepared to rapidly learn enough of a new technology or infrastructure to effectively investigate. However, one common trait any incident responder should have is applying techniques to winnow down large sets of data, categorizing them, and just making them more useful to support an investigation.

For whom do you think this career is a good fit, and why?

Incident response is a good fit for anyone who has a deep need to know how things work and can apply that to an investigation. I know people with all sorts of degrees and backgrounds doing this work, but what they all have in common is a need to find the root cause and extreme attention to detail.

What educational path did you take to work in incident response? Did you pursue additional education at any point? What was your educational experience like?

In College, after failing the calculus components of Electrical Engineering, I switched majors to Information Systems. Here, I was exposed to my first computer security courses. I fell into a group that was training for the upcoming Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition.

I joined the group, and we won at the state-wide competition, earning a spot to compete at the regionals. I applied to each sponsor of the event, figuring that if they sponsor the events, they must take computer security seriously. I was hired by one of these sponsors to work on their CIRT.

Although my initials are "IR," this career was not exactly a conscious decision with laser focus from day 1. This path was an organic evolution as a consequence of each experience I had, however good or bad they felt at the time.

What certifications or tests did you need to pass, if any, to enter the field and/or progress in your career as an incident responder?

I passed the CISSP exam in 2013, although it was not required when I began my career. I have noticed many job requisitions display requirements for various certifications. My opinion is that certifications can help achieve those standards set by HR to get passed the automated resume screening. Although, there is not necessarily a direct correlation between which or how many certifications someone has and their skill level.

I prepared for the CISSP by attending an employer-sponsored "bootcamp" class offered by my employer at the time. I also bought a $30 book of test questions from Amazon and went through those until I was achieving scores I felt comfortable with (80% or more). Anecdotally, my now wife went through this test question book and achieved 70% or higher on most sections without any computer security experience. This implies having good multiple choice test-taking skills can be beneficial.

The CISSP exam I took was computer based, and the platform used made it easy to manage the limited time. I do think the preparation made passing the exam more likely.

What's a typical workday like for you?

The scope of work for someone with the title "incident responder" can be quite broad. For most incident responders, their daily life consists mainly of 2 things: investigating alerts of detected suspicious activity, and hunting for undetected malicious activity.

Undetected activity usually means I am using techniques like "stacking" or "long tail analysis" and investigating the results for anomalous and suspicious activity. These methods of threat hunting are effective when you wish to search agnostic to known TTPs or IOCs. Many of the successes I have come down to prevalence: the low frequency or volume of something occurring within an environment.

For those working at third-party incident response firms, the work would be more densely packed with investigations, possibly for multiple clients at the same time. Doing this type of work requires excellent collaboration with clients, using their network expertise to make progress in the investigation. Some incident response firms may have delegated roles where an engagement with a client would contain an incident responder to help coordinate actions, along with specialists for forensics or malware analysis.

What is your favorite part of being an incident responder? How about the most challenging part?

Investigating an incident that is complex and high impact is demanding, and everyone's stress levels are high. Leadership is asking for updates, and you are still trying to figure out how the adversary is doing "that." You stay up for two days straight (my personal record is 44 hours) investigating the movements of the adversary through the network.

You know everything they touched, all of the tools they used, and the accounts they used and created. Then, armed with all of the intelligence about the adversary's operation, you drop the curtain and expel them from the network in a series of carefully coordinated actions involving many different teams throughout the organization. Coordinating these expulsion actions to prevent subsequent re-entry into the network is extremely challenging but also the most rewarding.

What advice do you have for individuals considering a career as an incident responder, and is there anything you wish you'd known before heading into this field?

Understand the demand this line of work will have, and position yourself amongst a team that supports each other. Your leadership should encourage you to take time off. Otherwise, they risk losing you and others from burnout. There is really nothing I wish I had known before entering this role because I enjoy the surprises and new experiences this line of work offers.

Portrait of Isaac Rego

Isaac Rego

Isaac Rego is an incident responder with 11 years of experience in the field. Rego's passion for his work has brought him around the world to share new threats and invent new defensive methods. He prioritizes collaboration and teamwork, crediting the good fortune in his career to all those who supported his outside-the-box mindset. His work as an incident responder is a way he found to serve and defend his country. Rego's current hobbies include lawn care and building a home theater room where, he applies just as much attention to detail as he does to his investigations.

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FAQ About the Day-to-Day of Incident Responders


What is a computer incident responder?

Incident responders are frontline cybersecurity professionals who take action when a cyberattack or security breach occurs. They work quickly to contain attacks, limit damage, and identify possible perpetrators. Responders also collect and preserve digital evidence, write reports, and present their findings to other stakeholders.

Is the day-to-day of an incident responder stressful?

Professionals who report on a typical day in the life of an incident responder often say the role can be stressful. The high-stakes nature of the position can create pressure. Hours can be long, especially when attacks occur.

How important is the role of the incident responder in an organization?

Incident response analysts typically occupy entry-level and junior roles in cybersecurity teams. However, the nature of their duties makes them highly valuable to their employers. They are often likened to the digital equivalent of emergency first responders.

How is an incident responder different from a cybersecurity analyst?

The two roles overlap, but cybersecurity analysts generally focus more on the static details of IT infrastructure and security. They also set up tools, configure and monitor networks, and conduct threat assessments. Incident responders play a more active role by answering alerts and taking direct action against cyberattacks, hackers, and security breaches.

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