Day in the Life of a Security Engineer
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Security engineers play a vital role in protecting data, networks, and computer systems from breaches and cyberattacks. In most settings, their roles mainly focus on creating and maintaining security systems. They also monitor networks, analyze traffic, and run incident response.
Technology experts predict growth in demand for cybersecurity professionals in the coming years: In November 2021, Cybersecurity Ventures released its near-term projections for the global cybersecurity job landscape. The publication expects 3.5 million cybersecurity job openings worldwide by 2025.
This guide details a day in the life of a security engineer. It covers common duties, work settings, and tips on how to prepare to enter this field.
What Is a Security Engineer?
A security engineer's day-to-day duties include identifying and addressing vulnerabilities in computer networks and systems. These professionals are often senior members of cybersecurity teams. They also participate in refining their employers' user policies and security procedures.
Credentials are important for security engineers. According to Infosec Resources, candidates should hold at least a bachelor's degree in a relevant field. Examples include fields such as computer science, computer engineering, and cybersecurity.
Security engineers should also consider industry certifications. Infosec Resources identifies digital forensics, incident detection and response, and intrusion prevention as key skills. Pursuing certification in these areas can lead to employment offers and higher earning potential.
What Do Security Engineers Do?
Security engineers lead organizational efforts to protect their employers' data, networks, and computer systems. They hold leadership positions on cybersecurity teams, supervising supporting members such as penetration testers and security analysts.
Many also work with information technology (IT) personnel to ensure full compliance with best practices and safety standards.
Most security engineers advance into leadership positions after working in supporting roles for at least two years. Early in their careers, aspiring security engineers develop key forensics, incident response, and intrusion detection skills.
Some engineering subfields, such as civil engineering, require professional licensure. These requirements do not apply to cybersecurity engineers. However, some cybersecurity engineers do obtain professional engineering credentials. These licenses are often for computer or control systems engineering.
Successful security engineers are detail-oriented and organized. They must thrive in high-stress environments — cybersecurity situations can evolve rapidly, requiring quick thinking and adaptability to protect websites and valuable digital assets.
For more about life as a security engineer, explore the subsections below. They explain primary and supplementary job duties.
Main Duties of Security Engineers
Identifying and Closing Vulnerabilities
Security engineers test the effectiveness of their strategies and systems. They find solutions to protect the weaknesses these tests identify. In larger organizations, security engineers may plan these tests and have junior cybersecurity personnel conduct them. In smaller organizations, they may perform the testing themselves.
Creating Security Policy
Security engineers establish and update security policies that protect digital assets. These include regulating the "who, what, and how" of accessing sensitive information and systems. Security engineers work with other decision-makers, including those in both technical and non-technical roles, to help regulate access.
Change Control Documentation
Change control operations revolve around documentation. They track an organization's authorized users, keeping tabs on who accessed what, for how long, and for what purpose. Security engineers also review and address unusual activity.
Monitoring Security System Performance
Real-time monitoring provides important insights into how cybersecurity measures perform. Security engineers may conduct monitoring themselves, especially in smaller organizations. In larger businesses, security engineers might establish monitoring best practices and review monitoring reports from support personnel.
If a security breach or cyberattack occurs, security engineers play a leading role in the organization's response. In larger organizations, security engineers supervise responses and delegate tasks. When the incident has been resolved, security engineers perform reviews, generate reports, minimize damage, and strengthen vulnerabilities.
Nonstandard Duties for Security Engineers
Upgrading and Updating
The software, tools, and technologies security engineers use to protect networks require ongoing maintenance. Security engineers may plan and supervise these updates.
Incident response reports are one of many forms of documentation security engineers generate. Other reports cover topics like threat intelligence and the technical details of system performance.
Security engineers conduct or supervise regular audits of the tools and controls they use to safeguard data and networks. These audits also investigate authorizations. Such audits ensure users only have access to the necessary digital assets, keeping sensitive data properly secured.
Research and Development
Hackers and cybercriminals constantly change techniques and develop new ways of bypassing security measures. As cybersecurity leaders, security engineers must ensure their skills are current. They achieve this through targeted professional development and careful research into impactful trends.
Security engineer positions may entail supervisory and administrative duties. In some cases, these include managing cybersecurity teams and their tasks. Security engineers also maintain contact with upper managers and key decision-makers. This may include attending and participating in meetings and presentations.
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A Cybersecurity Engineer's Day-to-Day
A typical day in the life of a cybersecurity engineer varies according to their employer's priorities. Sometimes, they focus on threat research and policy development. Others' daily tasks include finding vulnerabilities and implementing solutions.
Even so, interviews with senior security engineers reveal that these professionals tend to perform certain tasks more than others. Examples of these routine job duties include:
Reviewing and monitoring network and system activity for evidence of breaches or unusual/unauthorized activity
Responding to threats or breaches detected through monitoring
Seeking, testing, and closing off vulnerabilities in existing protective measures
Writing reports and communicating findings to partners and managers
Planning and executing necessary updates and system upgrades
If an active threat emerges, security engineers help lead the organized response. Meanwhile, the productive use of down-time may include:
Researching known and emerging cyberthreats, especially those most relevant to the business or its parent industry
Creating and updating organizational cybersecurity policies
Monitoring network access and usage patterns
A cybersecurity engineer's day-to-day activities change constantly. In a sense, there is no "typical" day in the life of a security engineer. For many professionals, this rich task variety is part of what makes the role appealing.
Where Security Engineers Work
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes security engineers in the broader category of information security analysts. Location-specific and industry-specific BLS data for this professional track offers several insights into job trends.
According to BLS data from 2021, the five metro areas that employ the most infosec professionals include:
- Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-VA-MD-WV
- New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA
- Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX
- Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD
- Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA
These five states employed the greatest number of infosec professionals:
IT firms and companies that design and maintain large-scale computer networks rank among the leading employers of security engineers. Other top employment industries and sectors include financial services, enterprise management, and consulting.
The BLS also tracks which industries have a higher concentration of information security analysts. As of May 2021, these five industries are:
- Information services
- Monetary authorities-central bank
- Computer systems design and related services
- Data processing, hosting, and related services
- Scientific research and development services
In general, job opportunities for security engineers and infosec analysts tend to cluster in metropolitan areas. Government agencies and private-sector employers tend to hire them in the greatest numbers. However, nonprofit groups increasingly view improving organizational cybersecurity as a priority. Cybersecurity engineers can also find work in consulting and contract-based jobs.
Many candidates prioritize earning potential when deciding on a career. The BLS identifies the following as the best-paid industries for infosec analysts:
- Waste management
- Other information services
- Computer equipment manufacturing
- Financial investments
- Motion picture and video
Infosec professionals are often in the highest demand among businesses that generate relatively large volumes of sensitive information. The more valuable that information is, and the more attention it attracts from cybercriminals, the greater the industry's cybersecurity needs.
Should You Become a Security Engineer?
Becoming a security engineer has many rewards: The average salary for infosec professionals is higher than the national average. The job requires constant evolution of skills and knowledge. However, this dynamic workplace environment can be stressful—employees who do not thrive under pressure may want to pursue other careers.
The explosive growth of the cybersecurity industry has attracted major labor market interest. While employment forecasts project positive growth for information security jobs, this may lead to increased competition for open positions. Thus, earning a quality education through degree programs or bootcamps is crucial.
How to Prepare for Life as a Security Engineer
As with many computer science professions, aspiring security engineers can follow multiple paths. The standard path involves formal schooling that develops valuable hard skills. These include:
Threat modeling and ethical hacking
Penetration and vulnerability testing
The advanced use of intrusion detection and prevention systems
Deep knowledge of programming languages, network architecture, encryption, application security, identity management, and access management
The ability to recognize and counter organized phishing scams, advanced persistent threats, malware, and unauthorized system/network entry attempts
A degree related to computer science offers a structured way to build these proficiencies. Coding bootcamps offer a faster alternative. In either case, candidates can strengthen their resumes by adding optional professional cybersecurity certifications.
In most organizations, security engineers are senior roles that require experience. Professionals often take engineer positions after working in related junior roles for 2-3 years.
Learn More About Security Engineers
This page answers the important question, "What do security engineers do?" It explores common job duties in detail.
Aspiring cybersecurity engineers can follow multiple job trajectories. This guide explains career paths for emerging security engineers.
This page explores career growth projections and salary expectations for security engineers.
Many security engineers complement their education with optional professional certifications. This page explains relevant certifications and how to obtain them.
Professional Spotlight: Tyler Drake
What previous cyber-related (or STEM-related) experience did you have, if any? What prompted your journey to become a security engineer?
I am the type of person who likes to take apart and put things back together. I was always the person in my family to fix gadgets or electronic devices. While working in construction up to my early 20s (though not directly a part of the STEM field), I realized that I did have a knack for technical or hands-on types of jobs. I decided that I should pursue some type of engineering career and the military was a great opportunity for me.
I started in the U.S. Marine Corps with absolutely no computer knowledge outside of basic user knowledge gained from working on my family's devices and began in the IT field as a data network specialist. For five years, I learned everything from IP subnetting and networking to configuring and managing virtual servers. All the technical knowledge gained from this gave me a great foundation to start working in IT security as a government contractor. I am now an information systems security officer (ISSO) working as a civil servant for the Marine Corps.
If you specialize in a particular subject or work in a particular industry, what prompted this choice? How did it evolve?
It is very common after military service for veterans to continue in the same or a similar field after active duty as a government contractor and/or civil servant. The transition for me from military service to government contractor in the IT field was the most logical at the time and was seamless in terms of job duties.
For whom do you think this career is a good fit? Why?
IT security, in my opinion, is best suited for those who have previous technical experience managing the systems that are being secured. Foundational knowledge is tremendously helpful in understanding the core concepts of how and why things need security and how important it is.
What educational path did you take to become a security engineer? Did you pursue additional education at any point? What was your educational experience like?
As mentioned previously, I gained almost all my technical computer knowledge while enlisted in the Marine Corps. As part of the military educational cycle, I went through six months of basic and intermediate IT courses for Microsoft and Cisco installation, configuration, and management.
After military service, I went to and graduated from Western Governors University (WGU) with a BS in IT network administration. I enjoyed my experience at WGU because I'm not the type of person who can sit through hours of lectures, and I was able to learn and do work at my own pace.
What certifications or tests did you need to pass, if any, to enter the field and/or progress in your career? How did you prepare for them? What were they like?
The bare minimum IT-related requirement that I needed as a government contractor was CompTIA security+ certification. This was about 1-2 weeks of studying to prepare for the test and consisted of basic cybersecurity knowledge and concepts.
This certification is currently required to be employed by the U.S. Department of Defense if your role requires privileged access. This is one of the best entry-level certifications for someone to have if they want to start in IT security, or even IT in general.
In my current role as an ISSO, I was required to pass the ISACA certified information security manager certification within six months of hire. It took about one month of studying to be prepared for testing. This certification covered the business and managerial side of IT security and is quite challenging for someone in my shoes who has spent their IT career "in the weeds" — in exclusively technical roles.
Like many organizations, the top concern is money, and this certification is heavy with questions that may not make sense for technically minded people. The certification did help better articulate how IT and technical operations support an organization's overall mission, vision, and productivity goals.
Outside of these two certifications, I have taken and passed 15 other certification tests, some as part of my WGU curriculum, and some guided by my own interest.
“In my opinion, to be an effective security engineer or auditor, you need clear visibility of your organization's network and where its strengths and weaknesses are.”
As a security engineer, what is a typical day like for you? How did that change as your career progressed?
My typical day consists of combing through network vulnerability scans, bringing endpoints into vulnerability, and hardening compliance with directives set forth by our cybersecurity leadership. There are also the occasional cybersecurity incidents, usually caused by an end-user plugging a device that contains less-than-desirable and potentially nefarious files or software into their computer.
The biggest changes in my field — working for the government — generally occur when we switch security and/or administration tools. The job duties and requirements more or less stay the same, while the tools we complete them with change. We have to continually adapt to the new processes and quirks of an unfamiliar system. This leads to procedural change and a slow evolution of capability, hopefully in the right direction.
I'll admit that in my experience, there have been too many redundant tools that all potentially do the same thing. That being said, I am happy to learn new things and am better off with the experience gained from such occurrences, and I look forward to what the future holds.
What is/was your favorite part of being a security engineer? The most challenging part?
I thoroughly enjoy being able to see the inner workings of an entire network and have the ability to act on problems I come across as needed. In my opinion, to be an effective security engineer or auditor, you need clear visibility of your organization's network and where its strengths and weaknesses are. I find it fun to look for these weaknesses and create fixes for them using automation and scripting.
It is a challenge to keep up with new vulnerabilities and security threats, and some may see this as a tedious, never-ending, and droning process. While it can be tedious at times, these challenges allow me to be creative in how I solve these problems and provide me further knowledge of how our systems work. I am not a programmer and have no programming background, so understanding better how systems and their vulnerabilities work is a big challenge, while it also provides its own rewards in learning.
What advice do you have for individuals considering becoming a security engineer?
Never stop learning about the IT security field, as it changes every second of every day. Keep pursuing knowledge, education, and certifications even if they are not required in your current role.
What do you wish you'd known before becoming a security engineer?
I wish I knew more about programming. A lot of technical security issues involve exploits in computer code. Programming knowledge can be a big help to understanding why and how a vulnerability affects a system and can help with coordinating a solution with an organization's devops team. Knowing one or more programming languages also opens the door to other IT security opportunities, such as penetration testing, which I have heard offers high salaries for those very proficient at it.
A native of Bailey, Colorado, Tyler Drake graduated from Platte Canyon High School in 2005, and joined the enlisted ranks of the Marine Corps in August 2009 as a data network specialist.
After his five-year term, he worked full time for Hewlett-Packard Enterprise as an IT specialist, later moving to cybersecurity. In 2016, Mr. Drake joined civil service as an information system security officer for the Marine Corps.
Since then, he has been working on many aspects of cybersecurity, such as certification and accreditation, vulnerability management, and incident response. University of Massachusetts Lowell and a master of business administration from Suffolk University.
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FAQ About the Day-to-Day of Security Engineers
What does a cybersecurity engineer do daily?
A day in the life of a security engineer is dynamic. Their work focuses on addressing vulnerabilities and maintaining network and system protections. They also create organizational cybersecurity policy and generate detailed reports, among other tasks.
How many hours do security engineers work?
Specifics vary by job, but most security engineers maintain busy full-time schedules. Their job duties may occasionally require them to work overtime, evenings, or weekends.
Is life as a security engineer stressful?
Cybersecurity professionals earn higher-than-average pay, in part because of the role they play in protecting their employer's assets. As such, successful security engineers often need high levels of stress tolerance.
Are security engineers paid well?
Security engineers can earn higher-than-average salaries approaching the six-figure range. As of November 2022, Payscale reports the average salary of a U.S. cybersecurity engineer is $99,333 per year.
Page last reviewed Nov 18, 2022
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