Security Engineer Career Overview

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Security engineers develop and supervise data and technology security systems to help prevent breaches, taps, and leaks associated with cybercrime. Alternate titles for this career include information assurance engineer, information systems security engineer, and information security engineer.

Companies may combine a security engineering role with an analyst’s role, but these positions typically focus on different things. Security analysts identify cybersecurity weaknesses, while security engineers build systems, such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems, to defend against attacks or leaks.

As commerce and data storage increasingly move into the cloud, organizations increasingly require robust information security systems. As a result, information security professionals can work across diverse industries, such as computer systems design, manufacturing, insurance, finance, and education.

The guide below describes security engineer degree requirements, entry-level experience, job responsibilities, and career skill sets. This page also introduces security engineer degrees that can launch young professionals toward exciting career opportunities in this growing, lucrative field. According to PayScale, security engineers make an average annual salary of $90,923.

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What Does a Security Engineer Do?

Security engineers keep sensitive data safe from breaches, taps, and leaks. These professionals protect organizational data, reputations, and finances by securing client information, financial records, and other confidential information. To accomplish this goal, they typically work with a team of other cybersecurity professionals, including penetration testers, security analysts, and technology managers.

Cybersecurity engineers detect, investigate, and prevent attacks. They resolve problems with technology such as IT software and equipment. Specifically, security engineers install firewalls, implement breach detection systems, and work with other professionals to solve security-related problems. They also conduct assessments, test security systems, and analyze risks. They report their findings and make recommendations to company executives.

These professionals face tough challenges because the tools and tactics they use to do their jobs change constantly. Cybercriminals grow increasingly sophisticated, and internal threats multiply when employees deal with complex security systems. Consequently, engineers face an ongoing struggle to keep data secure while not stressing non-technical employees and systems.

At the beginning of their careers, security engineers may build systems for small companies or business operations. As they mature in their roles, however, these professionals may maintain security protocols or try to break other engineers’ creations to test their strength and durability. Engineers with exceptional leadership and management skills may move into roles as security managers or chief information security officers. The following lists of key skills detail the characteristics that can influence success as a security engineer.


  • Key Soft Skills for Security Engineers


    Leadership
    Security engineers serve both as thought leaders and ask leaders of people. They must stay aware of the latest in security information and manage other cybersecurity professionals’ work.
    Project Management
    Security engineers often lead teams to complete defined deliverables on a tight timeframe. As project managers, these professionals also oversee workers, break down deliverables into tasks, and manage budgets and timelines.
    Problem Solving
    The ability to solve problems defines a security engineer’s career. These professionals address security-related issues through the frameworks, tools, and processes involved in problem solving.
    Communication
    Security engineers regularly communicate with other cybersecurity professionals, corporate leaders, and IT sales professionals. They also educate staff members about cybersecurity policies.



  • Key Hard Skills for Security Engineers


    Ethical Hacking
    Ethical hackers simulate cyber attacks from criminals. While this responsibility usually falls on other professionals, security engineers need to understand ethical hacking so they can build and maintain systems that support it.
    Computer Operating Systems
    Security engineers need hands-on familiarity with major operating systems, including Linux, UNIX, and Windows, along with knowledge of major database platforms, like MySQL and MSSQL.
    Network Architecture
    Computer networks include local area networks, wide area networks, and intranets. Engineers help design and build the phases of these networks and protect them against damage.
    Computer Forensics
    Computer forensics refers to the investigation of cybercrime. Security engineer skills include recognizing and working in the space where digital data meets the law.



A Day in the Life of a Security Engineer

A cybersecurity engineer’s day revolves around designing security tools and structures that keep a company safe from breaches and leaks. To design those tools and structures, engineers spend part of their time learning about new and emerging technologies relevant to their industry and to cybersecurity at large.

While the day’s main activity involves design, problem-solving is among the most important parts of the job. Engineers must solve business case problems for their companies or clients, and they help educate others about cybercrime and data security. Consequently, security engineers need top-notch communication skills to explain complex issues and build trust in their relationships.

Cybersecurity engineers work with other industry professionals, such as security lawyers, penetration testers, and security analysts. They also meet with corporate executives, managers, and cybersecurity sales professionals to help determine appropriate investments in security tools and strategies. The list below details five key roles for this profession.

Security Engineer Main Responsibilities

Develop Security Protocols
Working with a team of cybersecurity professionals, engineers develop protocols that help companies stay on top of their security needs. Engineers help plan and create cybersecurity policies that prevent breaches and intrusions.
Test System Vulnerabilities
Cybersecurity engineers run tests and simulations to determine a company’s vulnerabilities. Regularly checking and testing firewalls and data encryption technologies helps engineers know when a component of the security system needs repair or replacement.
Implement And Upgrade Security Measures
Security engineers often deploy new security software and hardware. These professionals also implement current corporate policies and work with cybersecurity teams to determine what technology upgrades the company should consider.
Maintain Security Systems
Security systems need regular maintenance, and sometimes they break down, requiring repair or replacement. Engineers take responsibility for keeping systems working and getting them back up when they fail.
Investigate Security Breaches
Security engineers determine the root causes of any security breaches. They also generate reports of their findings and host presentations for corporate management about how to improve security after a breach.

Security Engineer Salary

What is the average security engineer salary in the U.S.? According to PayScale, the typical professional in this occupation earns an average salary of $90,923 per year. That number may sound impressive when compared to the American median salary of $39,810, but many factors can affect a security engineer’s potential salary, including industry, location, education, experience, and job function and level.

Annual Average Salary

Security Engineers


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that security professionals who work in the finance industry typically earn more than their colleagues in other sectors. Public sector employees often earn some of the lowest wages. Salary alone, however, does not determine a job’s financial benefits. A job located in an area with a high cost of living, for example, needs to pay more than the same job in another area just to cover basic goods and services.

A security engineer’s educational background, years of experience, and job level all help determine salary packages. The chart below shows that an experienced professional in this field can earn nearly $40,000 more per year than an entry-level colleague.

Average Annual Salary of Security Engineers by Experience, 2020
Entry LevelEarly CareerMidcareerExperienced
Average Salary$70,479$82,177$99,780$109,188
Source: PayScale

Where Can I Work as a Security Engineer?

Security engineers can work just about anywhere — in coastal communities, heartland cities, or remote locations. They can also work across a wide variety of industries, including technology, finance, healthcare, and government.

The highest-paying jobs are often concentrated in urban centers that house companies in complex industries. The right industry and location can help security engineers set up careers they will enjoy for a long time.

Locations

Location affects potential for growth and development in any career, and that’s especially true for technology professionals. Some areas of the country serve as hubs for technology companies, and these locations often provide more job opportunities and higher pay. San Francisco, for example, pays security engineers 42% above average, as seen in the table below. Higher-paying locations also tend to be population-dense urban centers with a high cost of living that can offset the benefits of a hefty salary.

Living in a technology hub can provide access to the best jobs and networks for security engineers. It can also mean living near places that offer top quality art, sport, and gastronomic experiences. Some security engineers even work remotely, taking advantage of their profession’s relatively high pay and the lower cost of living that accompanies life in a rural community.

Top-Paying Cities for Security Engineers, 2020

Top-Paying CitiesPercentage Above Average Pay
San Francisco, CA42%
New York, NY24%
Seattle, WA20%
Chicago, IL7%
Boston, MA1%
Source: PayScale

Industries

Although security engineering is a technical job, not all security engineering professionals work in a technical industry. Many cybersecurity engineers work in sectors such as government, manufacturing, and financial services.

Government offers one of the hottest fields for cybersecurity because federal agencies have fallen far behind in shoring up their internet security. Cybersecurity professionals who work in government can make a significant impact for the public good, although historically, they have earned less money than their private sector counterparts.

An extremely vulnerable sector, manufacturing is experiencing a high number of cyber attacks as it implements new Internet of Things technology while relying on legacy security systems. Security engineers can build and maintain new security tools that protect connected devices.

Some of the highest-paid information security professionals work in the financial services sector. Due to the value of the products it holds, this industry serves as a target for many cyber criminals. Security engineers working in finance must build sophisticated and comprehensive security systems.

Major Employers

Google
Google owns the most-visited site on the internet, along with a host of technology brands, media sites, and artificial intelligence companies. The company earns $160 billion in annual revenue by staying on top of the algorithms that control the search market. As a well-known gateway to the internet, Google employs some of the world’s best cybersecurity professionals.
Amazon
A multinational technology company best known for its disruptive influence in scaling e-commerce platforms, Amazon began as an online retailer of used books but now dominates many industries. Today, the company rakes in more than $280 billion in annual revenue. Amazon’s market position depends on consumer trust, which requires top-shelf security.
Salesforce
A cloud-based software company focused on customer relationship management, Salesforce pulls in more than $17 billion in annual revenue. The company earns positive reviews for its product-marketing alignment. Salesforce hires cybersecurity professionals to build and maintain the high-level cloud security tools its users expect and regulatory agencies demand.

How to Become a Security Engineer

Security engineers typically start their career paths by earning a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, computer science, or a related field. This process usually takes four years, although some schools offer accelerated options.

After graduation, prospective security engineers usually spend 1-5 years working in IT jobs. During this time, they can work with mentors, earn cybersecurity credentials, and join professional associations to advance their careers.

With a few years of experience behind them, these professionals can apply to a master’s program in security engineering or a related field. As part of a graduate program, students typically participate in an internship, and many learners also write a thesis or complete an applied research project. Upon finishing a master’s degree, graduates can apply for security engineering positions — about 10 years after starting their freshman year in college.

Steps to Becoming a Security Engineer

  • Earn a bachelor’s degree in information security, cybersecurity, or a related field. A high GPA and a strong internship can add practical, real-world value to this degree.
  • Gain an entry-level job in an area related to security engineering, such as risk management or program testing.
  • Spend about five years gaining professional experience in the field.
  • After five years, security professionals can qualify for the CISSP credential through the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium.
  • Earn a master’s degree in cybersecurity or information security with a focus in security engineering.
  • Sign a contract for your first job as a security engineer.

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Security Engineer Requirements

Becoming a security engineer requires a four-year degree in the field and 1-5 years of related work experience. The sections below detail the specific requirements for becoming a security engineer and suggest various paths students may take to meet them.


  • Education Requirements For Security Engineers

    Prospective security engineers typically start their educational journey by earning a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. A four-year degree opens the door to most entry-level positions in the field. Many people, however, do not follow a linear career path. Some professionals may first earn a cybersecurity certificate or an associate degree and then work in the field before deciding to commit to a bachelor’s program. These professionals usually hold entry-level positions and cannot advance without a four-year degree.

    Typically, a security engineer needs a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity or security engineering, and people with lower-level degrees either work in related jobs or enroll in a four-year program. Professionals with less than an undergraduate degree may earn lower salaries than their more educated peers.

    Aspiring security engineers with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field may seek a master’s degree. While graduate education can help new professionals enter the field, their lack of experience may limit their early career options. In general, however, professionals with a master’s degree can compete for top-level security engineering jobs. These jobs often pay considerably more than standard security engineering salaries, and may include management roles along with technical work.


  • License And Certification Requirements For Security Engineers

    A degree in cybersecurity provides the expertise necessary to get started in security engineering. Many security engineer positions, however, also require professional certifications. Students can attend certification programs through IT companies, online cybersecurity schools, and professional organizations such as the Information Systems Security Association. Popular certifications include:


  • Required Experience For Security Engineers


    A career in security engineering often begins with a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity or a related field, but education alone is insufficient to launch a career. Professionals also need hands-on, real-world experience in the field. Consequently, many college degrees include internships or practicums as part of the curriculum. These experiences give students practical experience in the field.

    Relevant internships and entry-level information systems jobs allow new graduates to learn from more advanced IT security professionals. Becoming a security engineer, however, may require more hands-on experience than a college internship offers.

    Security engineers usually need 1-5 years of real-world job experience in IT. To help lay the groundwork for a security engineering career, recent graduates sometimes take jobs as penetration testers, junior security analysts, or network administrators.


The Security Engineer Job Hunt

Students and recent graduates can take advantage of their school’s career services office to find their first jobs as security engineers. These offices often keep tabs on the latest job fairs, internet career sites, and alumni contacts.

Experienced security engineers looking to make lateral or upward career moves can find help at conferences hosted by professional organizations, such as ISACA or CompTIA. As in any career, mentor recommendations and a personal network often provide the best job leads for security engineers.

Security Engineer Upward Mobility

Security engineers often begin their careers in general IT or cybersecurity roles before landing in engineering. With additional education and experience in security engineering, these professionals can move into new careers such as:

SECURITY ARCHITECT


As a senior IT professional, a security architect needs skills in technology, research, programming, and policy development to lead teams that manage network security systems. Security engineers should possess 1-5 years of experience plus appropriate credentials.

INFORMATION SECURITY MANAGER


An information security manager leads a corporation’s entire infosec system. These professionals supervise security analysts and administrators, deal with high-level issues, plan budgets, and add new technology. A master’s degree and about five years of experience can position a security engineer for this role.

CHIEF INFORMATION SECURITY OFFICER


The top information security leader in any organization, this professional manages a company’s data, security, and intellectual property. These supervisory roles often require 10 years of experience, a master’s degree, and professional certifications in the field.

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Frequently Asked Questions


  • How long does it take to become a security engineer?


    Security engineering jobs usually require a four-year undergraduate degree. Many security engineers also hold a master’s degree and 1-5 years of experience in an IT position prior to moving into an engineering role.

  • What degree is needed to be a security engineer?


    To get started as a security engineer, professionals need an undergraduate degree in cybersecurity or a related field, such as computer science or IT. Advanced jobs in security engineering may require a master’s degree as well.

  • How much does a security engineer make?

    According to PayScale, security engineers earn an average annual salary of $90,923. Experienced professionals and security engineers with skills in encryption, penetration testing, or software development can earn considerably more.


  • What requirements are there to become a security engineer?


    An undergraduate degree in cybersecurity can get most young professionals started in security engineering. With a master’s degree in the field and 1-5 years of experience, security engineers can compete for many of the top jobs in the profession.

  • What is the difference between a security analyst and a security engineer?


    Engineers build security systems; analysts try to find weaknesses in those systems. The engineer designs, upgrades, and maintains the system, while the analyst tests the system. These two professionals work together to create stronger information security systems.

Professional Organizations for Security Engineers

  • SANS The world’s largest source for information security training, SANS offers more than 60 courses on demand, online, and in person. Cybersecurity professionals can take a course, earn a certification, complete a degree, or take advantage of free educational resources.
  • Center for Internet Security A community-drive nonprofit organization composed of IT professionals from around the globe, CIS provides information on cyber threats through its multi-state information sharing and analysis center. Members can access various tools, resources, and services.
  • CompTIA One of the oldest organizations for information security professionals, CompTIA provides numerous industry-leading certifications plus a career center, networking options, and awards for members. The association also helps shape public policy as it relates to cybersecurity and IT.
  • ISACA A global organization for security professionals, ISACA offers industry-wide standards of information security along with credentials, training, events, and career connections. Students and recent graduates can take advantage of special membership options that can help launch their careers.

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