6 min read

Cybercriminals are continally developing new and more sophisticated ways to exploit software vulnerabilities, making it increasingly difficult to defend our systems. Today, then, we need to be proactive in how we protect our digital properties. That’s why penetration testers are so in demand.

Although risk analysis can easily be done by internal security teams, support from skilled penetration testers can be the difference between security and vulnerability. These highly trained professionals can “think like the enemy” and employ creative ways to identify problems before they occur, going beyond the use of automated tools. Pentesters can perform technological offensives, but also simulate spear phishing campaigns to identify weak links in the security posture of the companies and pinpoint training needs. The human element is essential to simulate a realistic attack and uncover all of the infrastructure’s critical weaknesses.

Being a pen tester can be financially rewarding because trained and skilled ones can normally secure good wages. Employers are willing to pay top dollar to attract and retain talent. Most pen testers enjoy sizable salaries depending on where they live and their level of experience and training. According to a PayScale salary survey, the average salary is approximately $78K annually, ranging from $44K to $124K on the higher end.

To be a better pen tester, you need to upgrade or master your art in certain aspects. The following skills will make you stand out in the crowd and will make you a better and more effective pen tester. I know what you’re thinking. This seems like an awful lot of work learning penetration testing, right? Wrong. You can still learn how to penetration test and become a penetration tester without these things, but learning all of these things will make it easier and help you understand both how and why things are done a certain way. Bad pen testers know that things are vulnerable. Good pen testers know how things are vulnerable. Great pen testers know why things are vulnerable.

Mastering command-line

If you notice that even in modern hacker films and series, the hackers always have a little black box on the screen with text going everywhere. It’s a cliché but it’s based in reality. Hackers and penetration testers alike use the command line a lot.

Most of the tools are normally command line based. It’s not showing off, it’s just the most efficient way to do our jobs. If you want to become a penetration tester you need to be at the very least, comfortable with a DOS or PowerShell prompt or terminal. The best way to develop this sort of skillset is to learn how to write DOS Batch or PowerShell scripts. There are various command line tools that make the life of a pen-tester easy. So learning to use those tools and mastering them will enable you to pen-test your environment efficiently.

Mastering OS concepts

If you look at penetration testing or hacking sites and tutorials, there’s a strong tendency to use Linux. If you start with something like Ubuntu, Mint or Fedora or Kali as a main OS and try to spend some time tinkering under the hood, it’ll help you become more familiar with the environment. Setting up a VM to install and break into a Linux server is a great way to learn.

You wouldn’t expect to be able to comfortably find and exploit file permission weaknesses if you don’t understand how Linux file permissions work, nor should you expect to be able to exploit the latest vulnerabilities comfortably and effectively without understanding how they affect a system. A basic understanding of Unix file permissions, processes, shell scripting, and sockets will go a long way.

Mastering networking and protocols to the packet level

TCP/IP seems really scary at first, but the basics can be learned in a day or two. While breaking in you can use a packet sniffing tool called Wireshark to see what’s really going on when they send traffic to a target instead of blindly accepting documented behavior without understanding what’s happening.

You’ll also need to know not only how HTTP works over the wire, but also you’ll need to understand the Document Object Model (DOM) and enough knowledge about how backends work to then, further understand how web-based vulnerabilities occur. You can become a penetration tester without learning a huge volume of things, but you’ll struggle and it’ll be a much less rewarding career.

Mastering programming

If you can’t program then you’re at risk of losing out to candidates who can. At best, you’re possibly going to lose money from that starting salary. Why? You would require sufficient knowledge in a programming language to understand the source code and find a vulnerability in it. For instance, only if you know PHP and how it interacts with a database, will you be able to exploit SQL injection. Your prospective employer is going to need to give you time to learn these things if they’re going to get the most out of you. So don’t steal money from your own career, learn to program. It’s not hard.

Being able to program means you can write tools, automate activities, and be far more efficient. Aside from basic scripting you should ideally become at least semi-comfortable with one programming languageand cover the basics in another.

Web people like Ruby. Python is popular amongst reverse engineers. Perl is particularly popular amongst hardcore Unix users. You don’t need to be a great programmer, but being able to program is worth its weight in goldand most languages have online tutorials to get you started.

Final thoughts

Employers will hire a bad junior tester if they have to, and a good junior tester if there’s no one better, but they’ll usually hire a potentially great junior pen tester in a heartbeat. If you don’t spend time learning the basics to make yourself a great pen tester, you’re stealing from your own potential salary.

If you’re missing some or all of the things above, don’t be upset. You can still work towards getting a job in penetration testing and you don’t need to be an expert in any of these things. They’re simply technical qualities that make you a much better candidate for being (and probably better paid) hired from a hiring manager and supporting interviewer’s perspective.

About the author

Hari Vignesh Jayapalan is a Google Certified Android app developer, IDF Certified UI & UX Professional, street magician, fitness freak, technology enthusiast, and wannabe entrepreneur. He can be found on Twitter @HariofSpades.


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