You Can Become an Ethical Hacker. Here’s How to Get Started.
So you think you want to become an ethical hacker - but do you have what it takes? According to the experts: yeah, you probably do. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of hackers don’t have genius-level IQs or superhuman powers, just superior research skills, lots of patience, and a love of problem-solving.
We’re about to discuss the nitty-gritty of white-hat hacking - from the basics to the different roles you can pursue in this field and what exactly you need to do to become qualified for those positions. Ultimately, whether or not a career in ethical hacking is right for you depends on several factors, including your professional background and experience, your willingness to study and train to acquire specialized skills, and your overall career goals.
The good news is that ethical hacking is undoubtedly a skill that you can acquire through study and practice, so buckle up and let’s explore all your options to move forward and become an ethical hacker.
What is Ethical Hacking?
Not all hackers are created equal. Black-hat hackers make money by attacking companies and governments and either stealing data or holding it for ransom, hoping for a payoff. On the other hand, white-hats spend their days “attacking” their clients to test their security systems, and get paid for their hacking efforts - plus, bonus points, they don’t need to look over their shoulders for FBI raids.
And that’s what ethical hacking is in a nutshell: white hackers, or pen testers, work for companies and governments to safely hack into their systems, so they can expose any existing vulnerabilities and strengthen their defenses.
From a professional standpoint, there are few professional downsides in the ethical hacking world. If your authorized attacks are successful, you can report back to your clients with a list of vulnerabilities and the best way to correct them. This results in a strengthened security system that can fend off attackers. If, on the other hand, your hacking efforts prove fruitless, your clients will still walk away happy, knowing that their security measures have proved resilient enough to withstand an attack.
Skilled white-hat hackers have the same knowledge of cybersecurity as malicious hackers, and that’s why their work is essential when checking for weaknesses and entry points in a network, infrastructure, and web application security.
Some of the essential skills all ethical hackers need include:
- Proficiency in database handling, networking, and operating systems.
- Working knowledge of Python and other programming languages.
- Ability to use social engineering to launch phishing campaigns or other types of attacks.
- Hijacking web servers and applications.
- Bypassing and cracking wireless encryption.
- Exploit buffer overflow vulnerabilities.
- SQL injections.
- Password cracking.
- Sniffing networks.
- Scanning open and closed ports using tools like Nessus and NMAP.
- Examining patch releases.
- Evading intrusion detection and intrusion prevention systems.
Top 3 Ethical Hacking Jobs
Ethical hackers come in all shapes and sizes, but the vast majority of entry to mid-level white-hat hackers generally work in an agency setting. The most sought-after ethical hacking job titles are:
- Penetration Tester: if you’ve always dreamed of becoming a hacker but prefer to stay within the bounds of the law, becoming a pen tester might be the right career choice for you. You’ll probe computer networks and discover vulnerabilities, simulate cyberattacks, and breach information systems just like a malicious hacker would. The difference is, of course, that you’ll present a report outlining the vulnerabilities you’ve found, and instead of causing damage to corporations or communities, you’ll be able to help defend against the bad guys.
- Vulnerability Assessor: if you love picking systems apart, this might just be the dream job for you. Vulnerability assessors, sometimes called vulnerability assessment analysts, scan applications and systems to find vulnerabilities and search networks for critical flaws. Usually, you’ll also need to present your findings in a comprehensive list along with practical, business-focused recommendations so that companies can decide which improvements to prioritize.
- Security Consultant: generally speaking, if you are an experienced ethical hacker with years of successful pen-testing under your belt, it might make sense for you to branch out on your own and either open your security agency or try out the freelance life. Every client will have a unique set of security concerns, so you’ll need to be able to analyze a wide range of potential cybersecurity threats by running different types of tests and searching for potential breaches.
Ever hear of white-hat “bug-bounty” hunters? Popular platforms like HackerOne partner with the global hacker community to surface the most relevant security issues of the thousands of companies who sign up for their ethical hacking services. If you’re not ready to fully commit to the ethical hacker life, you can always get your feet wet by signing up for freelance work on similar platforms and hone your cybersecurity skills while getting paid.
What Do All Ethical Hackers Have in Common?
In general, all white hat hackers are master researchers. They often spend more time researching their clients and figuring out how best to attack them than doing the actual attacking and infiltrating.
This is because if they’ve done a thorough enough job researching their targets, the attack phase shouldn’t be all that difficult. Contrary to popular belief, discipline and systematic thoroughness will get you further in ethical hacking than being a computer genius.
Ethical Hacking: Where to Start
As with most professions, there are many paths that can lead you to become an ethical hacker. But knowing your destination is not enough, as your current knowledge of and proficiency in cybersecurity are just as important.
Suppose you already work in IT or have a background in information security. In that case, you might just need to freshen up your skills and knowledge of the most up-to-date cybersecurity techniques and methodologies. Since you already know the fundamentals, it might be enough for you to take a certification-prep class and sit for the EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) exam, which is the industry standard for professionals starting out in ethical hacking.
By studying the course materials for the CEH exam, you’ll learn the latest hacking tools, techniques, and methodologies used by actual hackers to infiltrate an organization lawfully. Still, to pass the exam, you’ll also need a working knowledge of programming languages, servers, and networking.
However, if you don’t have a tech background, don’t be discouraged. You can still pursue an ethical hacking career, though it might take a bit of extra groundwork. First, you’ll need to build a solid foundation across network security, Microsoft and Linux security, the basics of Python programming, and many other essential cybersecurity subjects.
The California State University, Long Beach, offers a Cybersecurity Professional Certificate Program that can help you gain the job-ready skills you need to get started in the exciting field of cybersecurity and advance into an ethical hacking career.
Here’s a high-level breakdown of how it works:
- Part-Time Schedule: you can register for live & online classes; 2 sessions will take place on weeknights and one on Saturdays. The whole program is 400 hours of in-depth cybersecurity instruction and takes about 10-11 months to finish, depending on holidays.
- Expert Instructors: you will learn from accomplished cybersecurity professionals who bring their expertise and everyday experience directly into the classroom and are available to answer all your questions and support you along your learning journey.
- Practical Skills: you will practice your new skills through cyber labs that mimic real-world cybersecurity scenarios. In our proprietary platform, called CyWar, every course you take has a corresponding set of online resources, including study guides and additional hands-on exercises you can use to hone your skills further.
- Ethical Hacking: the program dedicates 50 hours, or 12 lessons, to Ethical Hacking specifically, teaching you to describe and engage in ethical hacking processes and procedures, identify common techniques and attack methodologies, and perform standard cyberattack techniques and methodologies. This course will also give you the broad foundations to pursue a career trajectory in ethical hacking and can also help you prepare for the CEH exam.* While this class alone wouldn’t be enough to lay the foundation for a thriving career in ethical hacking, it can help you succeed in cybersecurity and set you on a course to specialize as a white-hat hacker.
- Career Services: the CSULB Cybersecurity Professional Certificate Program has dedicated career services professionals who can help guide you along your ethical hacking journey. They start working with learners early on, helping you build a professional resume, a polished LinkedIn account, and access to our extensive network of hiring partners—so you can jumpstart your job search even before the end of the program.
New cohorts start on a rolling basis. To know when the next opportunity to enroll will be, you can reach out to our admissions advisors at 562-359-4787. They will also be able to answer any question you have about pursuing a career in ethical hacking and help you decide if it’s a path that makes sense for your unique professional journey.
*While the curriculum provides the knowledge needed to perform well on industry exams, this is not a test-preparation program, where the primary focus is the students’ performance on the exam. Certification exams are not conducted as part of the program and require additional costs not included in tuition.