Penetration Tester: A Day in the Life

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Penetration testers protect digital assets by finding weaknesses in existing computer systems or networks. Sometimes called ethical hackers or pen testers, these professionals work in teams to stop malicious hackers from accessing valuable data. Typical duties include conducting penetration testing and developing methods to improve penetration testing.

PayScale reports that penetration testers made an average annual salary of $87,440 as of September 2021.

These professionals also analyze penetration testing results and make recommendations for eliminating security weaknesses. A penetration tester typically needs relevant experience and a bachelor’s degree in computer science, cybersecurity, or a related field. PayScale reports that penetration testers made an average annual salary of $87,440 as of September 2021.

This page covers the daily life of a penetration tester. We describe penetration testing and typical job duties, helping you decide if this career path is right for you.

Explore This Page: Job Responsibilities | A Penetration Tester’s Typical Day | Where Penetration Testers Work | Should You Become a Penetration Tester? | FAQs

What Is a Penetration Tester?

Penetration testers focus on a specialized area of cybersecurity, often working within IT teams to prevent data breaches. These professionals apply advanced cybersecurity expertise to find vulnerabilities in their organizations’ existing computer systems by simulating attacks.

Penetration testers focus on a narrower area of cybersecurity than other security professionals. Typical penetration tester job duties include planning and carrying out penetration tests, writing reports, and making security recommendations.

Most employers require candidates to possess relevant professional experience and bachelor’s degrees in computer science or cybersecurity. Professional certifications, like the certified information systems security professional, can increase career opportunities. Penetration testers may start their careers in entry-level IT positions related to network security before obtaining the experience to land more advanced cybersecurity roles.

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What a Penetration Tester Does

As organizations increasingly store large amounts of sensitive and valuable data online, the frequency of cyberattacks grows. Penetration testers evaluate the effectiveness of organizations’ cybersecurity policies and protocols by conducting vulnerability assessments.

Pen testers use advanced IT security skills to detect places where malicious hackers could successfully launch attacks and break into computer networks, systems, or other assets. These professionals find ways to prevent cyberattacks before they happen.

The typical day of a penetration tester varies but may include planning and launching penetration tests, writing reports and giving presentations after a penetration test, and making recommendations for security improvements. The penetration tester work environment is typically a standard office, but many work remotely.

Penetration tests can take place externally or internally. Pen testers gain access to computer systems using physical, wireless, web application, and network services. They also use social engineering techniques, tricking people into sharing passwords and granting access to sensitive information. Each type of penetration test involves different tools and knowledge of the field.

Over time, penetration testers can move from junior to senior roles. Senior penetration testers typically spend more time planning simulations and making recommendations for security improvements. Below, we describe key duties for these professionals.

Main Job Duties of Penetration Testers

  • Planning Penetration Tests: Penetration testers plan and develop tests to find potential security problems. They use existing methods and sometimes make their own tools to launch tests. Creating a penetration test plan requires strong project management and time management skills.
  • Enacting Penetration Tests: Penetration tests simulate malicious cyberattacks from outside individuals or organizations to detect internal vulnerabilities. This allows organizations to improve their security, stopping data breaches and other cyberattacks before they happen. Penetration testers use the same types of tools and methods as hackers to protect company data.
  • Making Security Recommendations: Penetration testers can improve security by analyzing what went wrong in their simulations. They can make recommendations to address security weaknesses and suggest security education for employees. They may work with computer engineers or other cybersecurity team members to mitigate identified weaknesses.
  • Writing Reports/Giving Presentations: After launching a test, penetration testers write reports to present their findings to management. Reports typically include recommendations about how to improve security for the future. Pen testers also sometimes give oral presentations describing the results of their tests.
  • Track New Cybersecurity Developments: Penetration testers should follow professional publications or complete certifications to remain informed about emerging security threats and malware. It also helps to research general information technology and security trends.

Unusual Job Duties for Penetration Testers

  • Investigate Cyberattacks: Penetration testers usually do not respond to or investigate security breaches, but they can in some positions. This work may involve collecting digital evidence, finding a motive, and locating suspects. Pen testers can also help patch holes and address vulnerabilities.
  • Develop Cybersecurity Best Practices: Pen testers may develop cybersecurity best practices for their organizations. Their work includes finding vulnerabilities in existing systems, leading penetration testers to excel in providing computer security solutions.
  • Upgrade Computer Systems: Penetration testers at smaller organizations may need to help with general computer system maintenance, including installing RAM, upgrading cloud storage, and adding or connecting hard drives. Upgrading computer systems can save money and improve security.
  • Assist Computer Users: Some penetration testers provide one-on-one assistance or group workshops to provide training in new cybersecurity procedures and products. Pen testers are more likely to provide tech help and customer service in smaller organizations. Large companies usually have dedicated computer support professionals.
  • Mount Incident Responses: Although pen testers usually do not participate in incident response, some may help respond to cyberattacks and security threats as part of incident response teams. The first 48 hours after an attack are crucial, so incident response ideally happens in this period.

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A Typical Day of a Penetration Tester

Penetration tester duties vary depending on employer, industry, location, plus experience levels and education. Below, we outline what to expect during a typical day of a penetration tester.

  • 9 a.m.: Come into the office and greet coworkers. Log on to your computer and check emails.
  • 9:30 a.m.: Attend an all-staff weekly meeting. Deliver a five-minute presentation on security weaknesses you found in your last penetration test that involved social engineering. Remind employees to protect their passwords and beware of phishing emails.
  • 10:30 a.m.: Work on upcoming penetration testing plans for the company’s computer system. Consider various testing methods.
  • 12:30 p.m.: Working lunch with coworkers to discuss emerging issues in cybersecurity.
  • 1:30 p.m.: Continue planning upcoming penetration test. Experiment with developing your own tools.
  • 4 p.m.: Work on a report from a past penetration test. Document and evaluate findings, including software, hardware, and protocols. Plan to discuss with the team and your supervisor.
  • 5 p.m.: Meet with your supervisor to discuss the upcoming penetration test and receive feedback on your plan.
  • 6 p.m.: Pack up and prepare for the next day, making sure to bring home anything you may need to work from home.

Work Environments for Penetration Testers

Penetration tester work environments vary by position, employer, industry, and location. Typical employing industries include computer systems design and related services, finance and insurance, and management. Other industries that hire penetration testers include information and administration and support services.

Major companies that employ penetration testers include Amazon and IBM. Pen testers can also apply at firms that specialize in cybersecurity or penetration testing, like FireEye, RSI Security, CrowdStrike, and McAfee.

Although penetration testers’ main tasks usually remain the same regardless of the work environment, the job setting can affect their scope of duties. At smaller organizations, pen testers may handle more general computer maintenance and support in addition to their specialized work.

The top-paying states for security professions are California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.

Location can affect the number of available jobs, along with average salaries and types of employers hiring pen testers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the top-employing states for information security analysts (which encompasses penetration testers) include Virginia, Texas, California, and Florida. The top-paying states for security professions are California, New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.

Consider cost of living and quality of life when researching average salaries. Information security analysts make an average annual wage of $125,990 in California as of May 2020, but the state also ranks second in the country for the highest cost of living.

Think about how relocating for a job in penetration testing may affect other aspects of your life, like proximity to family and friends, housing affordability, and the presence of desirable amenities.

See How Location Affects Salary for Penetration Testers

Should You Become a Penetration Tester?

The growing penetration testing field offers many lucrative opportunities. Becoming a penetration tester takes hard work, time, and money. Most employers require at least a bachelor’s degree in a tech field, like computer science or cybersecurity.

Prospective penetration testers include information technology professionals and college students pursuing computer science or cybersecurity degrees. An individual already working in a computer-related field can often land a job by earning a professional certification in penetration testing. Future pen testers may currently work in other fields.

Discover How to Become a Penetration Tester

Preparing for Life as a Penetration Tester

Preparing for the life of a penetration tester usually requires earning a bachelor’s degree in a field like computer science or cybersecurity. Most employers also require relevant experience and may prefer applicants with professional certifications in the field. Candidates can also gain advanced penetration tester knowledge in cybersecurity bootcamps.

Companies rely on penetration testers to find potential security vulnerabilities and avoid cyberattacks. Knowing that you are responsible for preventing the loss of valuable or sensitive data can be stressful, especially amid breaches. Becoming a penetration tester requires candidates to stay calm under pressure, develop advanced technical expertise, and continually research emerging security threats.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the life of a penetration tester stressful?

    The life of a penetration tester can be stressful, depending on the position and employer. In some cases, failing to identify a vulnerability can lead to massive financial or data losses for companies.

  • How is job satisfaction for penetration testers?

    Penetration tester job satisfaction varies by position, employer, industry, and location. These professionals can find satisfaction knowing that they identified potential weaknesses to stop cyberattacks before they happen.

  • What does a penetration tester do on a daily basis?

    Penetration testers plan, carry out, and evaluate penetration tests. They also write reports and make recommendations. Pen testers may work alone or with IT teams to evaluate the effectiveness of organizations’ computer security.

  • What skills do you need to be a penetration tester?

    Penetration testers need coding, hacking, problem-solving, and communication skills. They must possess an advanced understanding of computer security issues, how breaches happen, and the wide-reaching impacts of cyberattacks.

Featured Image: Thomas Barwick / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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