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How to become an ethical hacker

If you’re looking to become an ethical hacker, read what skills, experience & certifications you need & how to apply at CovertSwarm.

ethical hacker

Ready to turn your passion for problem-solving into a career that makes a real difference? Want to outsmart cyber criminals at their own game? Becoming an ethical hacker might be your calling.

In a digital landscape riddled with threats, ethical hackers are using their skills for integrity, rather than chaos. If you want to embark on an exciting career path with lucrative opportunities and ample room for growth, this blog is for you.

This blog will cover:

  • What is ethical hacking?
  • What is an ethical hacker?
  • Is ethical hacking a good career and is it in demand?
  • Ethical hacking careers path
  • How much can an ethical hacker earn?
  • How to become an ethical hacker
  • Challenges ethical hackers can face
  • How and where do I apply?

What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking is the practice of legally and intentionally probing computer systems, networks, and applications to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses that malicious hackers or bad actors could exploit – all with permission. Ethical hackers use their skills to assess and secure systems, with the consent and knowledge of the system owner, to protect them from potential threats.

In today’s digital age, cyber threats are prevalent and constantly evolving, and, as technology advances, the ethical and legal responsibility to secure systems becomes increasingly important. Ethical hackers play a critical role in identifying vulnerabilities before malicious actors can exploit them and enhancing overall cybersecurity.

The primary difference between malicious and ethical hacking is intent. Malicious hackers aim to compromise systems for personal gain, harm, or unauthorized access, while ethical hackers have explicit permission to identify and fix vulnerabilities. The former seeks to exploit weakness for personal gain and the latter intends to protect and secure systems.

Ethical hacking is not to be confused with penetration testing, which is a specific subset of ethical hacking that focuses on attempting to breach a system to determine its security posture. Ethical hacking has a broader purpose and involves a comprehensive assessment of systems, networks, and applications to identify vulnerabilities. 

What is an ethical hacker?

Ethical hackers perform a variety of tasks to identify and mitigate security vulnerabilities. They actively simulate cyberattacks, conduct security assessments, and provide recommendations to organizations to strengthen their security defenses, safeguard sensitive data, and prevent potential threats.

Within the field of ethical hacking, there are different types of specializations. For example:

  • Web application ethical hacking: specializes in assessing the security of web applications, identifying vulnerabilities like SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS).
  • Network ethical hacker: focuses on assessing the security of networks, including firewalls, routers, and switches, to find vulnerabilities that could be exploited.
  • Wireless ethical hacker: specializes in assessing wireless networks, identifying weaknesses in Wi-Fi security, and ensuring secure configurations.
  • Social engineering specialists: focuses on exploiting human psychology and manipulating individuals to gain unauthorized access to systems or information.
  • IoT (Internet of Things) ethical hacker: identifies vulnerabilities in IoT devices and ecosystems, ensuring the security of connected devices.
  • Red teamer: engages in advanced simulation exercises where they mimic real-world attacks to test an organization’s entire security IT infrastructure

Is ethical hacking a good career and is it in demand?

Pursuing a career in this field offers countless benefits. Firstly, it’s an exciting and dynamic industry that provides the opportunity for continuous learning. There is a high demand for ethical hackers which often translates into competitive salaries and ample job opportunities.

Many find ethical hacking to be an extremely rewarding career as they actively contribute to enhancing cybersecurity and protecting sensitive data, thereby safeguarding individuals and organizations from potentially devastating attacks.

Ethical hacking is also a highly sought-after career path due to its attractive working conditions. For example:

  • Working hours: ethical hackers often have flexible working hours. However, in incident response situations or during critical assessments, they might need to work irregular hours.
  • Location: ethical hackers can work in a variety of environments, including corporate offices, remote work settings, or as independent consultants.
  • Team collaboration: they may work individually, as part of a cybersecurity team, or alongside IT and security professionals.
  • Travel: depending on the job, ethical hackers may need to travel to different client sites for assessments or investigations.
  • Work environment: the work environment can vary but typically involves a mix of desk work, testing labs, and client interactions.

Ethical hacking careers path

The ethical hacking career path typically progresses through various stages, from entry-level positions to senior roles and leadership positions. Here’s an overview of each stage: 

1. Entry-level ethical hacker 

Entry-level positions might include titles like “Junior Security Analyst” or “Security Intern.” At this stage, individuals are often responsible for assisting in security assessments, conducting routine vulnerability scans, and learning the basics of security tools and techniques.

2. Mid-level ethical hacker

Mid-level positions may include titles like “Security Analyst,” “Penetration Tester,” or “Security Consultant”, which take on more complex assessments, conduct penetration tests, analyze vulnerabilities, and provide detailed reports with remediation recommendations.

They often specialize in specific areas such as web application or network security.

3. Senior-level ethical hacker 

Senior-level positions can include titles such as “Senior Security Consultant,” “Lead Penetration Tester,” or “Security Architect.” Senior ethical hackers lead complex security assessments, manage teams, design security strategies, and work closely with clients to develop long-term security plans.

They may specialize further or broaden their expertise.

4. Ethical hacking leader 

Ethical hacking leaders can have titles like “Chief Information Security Officer (CISO),” “Security Director,” or “Security Consultant Partner.” At this level, individuals are responsible for the overall cybersecurity strategy of organizations.

They lead large teams of ethical hackers, oversee security initiatives, and make critical decisions to protect an organization’s assets.

How much can an ethical hacker earn?

The salary of an ethical hacker can vary significantly based on factors such as experience, location, education, certifications, and the specific employer.

However, starting salaries in the UK can range from £25,000 to £40,000 per year whereas the same position in the US can range from $50,000 to $90,000 per year.

More experienced candidates, such as ethical hacking leaders, can expect to make well above £100,000 per year in the UK and more than $200,000 in the United States. 

How to become an ethical hacker

A combination of technical skills, soft skills, character traits, knowledge, and practical experience is crucial for a career in ethical hacking. Here’s what an ideal candidate should strive for: 

Technical skills and fundamentals

  • Proficiency in computer networking, operating systems (e.g., Linux, Windows), and basic programming/scripting languages (e.g., Python).
  • In-depth knowledge of cybersecurity concepts, protocols, and technologies, including firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and encryption.
  • Familiarity with ethical hacking tools and frameworks, such as Kali Linux, Wireshark, Metasploit, and Burp Suite.
  • Understanding of web application security, databases, and common vulnerabilities like SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS).
  • Mastery of network protocols and services, including TCP/IP, DNS, HTTP, and HTTPS.

Soft skills

  • Strong problem-solving and analytical skills to identify vulnerabilities and assess security risks.
  • Excellent communication skills for documenting findings and effectively communicating with clients and team members.
  • Attention to detail to ensure thorough security assessments.
  • Creativity to think outside the box and anticipate potential attack vectors.
  • Ethics and integrity are paramount, as ethical hackers must uphold high moral standards.

Character traits

  • Curiosity and a continuous learning mindset to keep up with evolving cybersecurity threats.
  • Persistence and determination when facing complex security challenges.
  • Adaptability to stay current with the latest tools and techniques.
  • Strong work ethic and a commitment to maintaining the highest level of professionalism and confidentiality.

Knowledge and experience

Although formal education in cybersecurity, computer science, or related fields can be beneficial, it is not always mandatory. Focusing on practical experience gained through internships, labs, and hands-on projects is crucial.

Individuals may also benefit from relevant ethical hacking training courses and certifications, such as:

  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
  • CompTIA Security+
  • Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) 
  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

Overall, prospective ethical hackers should gain proficiency with ethical hacking tools like: 

  • Network scanning tools (Nmap, Wireshark)
  • Vulnerability assessment tools (OpenVAS, Nessus)
  • Exploitation frameworks (Metasploit, BeEF)
  • Web application security tools (Burp Suite, OWASP Zap)
  • Wireless hacking tools (Aircrack-ng, Reaver)

Other learning paths and resources 

Aspiring ethical hackers have diverse learning paths and resources at their disposal. The choice between self-learning and formal education depends on individual preferences and circumstances.

While formal degrees in cybersecurity or related fields can provide a strong foundation, many successful ethical hackers are self-taught, relying on certifications to validate their skills.

Additionally, online tutorials, blogs, and forums offer a wealth of free knowledge. Plenty of practice with Capture The Flag (CTF) challenges and platforms provides hands-on experience and real-world scenarios to sharpen hacking skills.

Combining these resources allows individuals to tailor their learning journey to suit their goals and aspirations in the field of ethical hacking. 

Challenges ethical hackers can face

As with any career path, ethical hackers may face certain challenges. This includes:

  • Emerging technologies and security challenges: adapting to rapidly evolving technologies, navigating complex systems, and dealing with the absence of established security standards.
  • Evolution of attack vectors and defense strategies: keeping pace with increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks, developing strategies to defend against unknown threats, and maintaining a balance between offensive and defensive skills.
  • Legal and ethical gray areas: navigating complex legal and ethical frameworks. Even when acting with good intentions and obtaining consent, ethical hackers may still encounter legal challenges or face ethical dilemmas.
  • Human error and insider threats: assessing and mitigating vulnerabilities caused by human error or insider threats within organizations can be challenging, as these often involve non-technical factors.
  • Securing cloud environments: the migration of data and services to cloud platforms introduces new security challenges that ethical hackers must address. 
  • Global threat landscape: ethical hackers may need to contend with international threat actors and geopolitical challenges. 
  • Client relations: building trust and effective communication with clients, especially when uncovering vulnerabilities, can sometimes be challenging.

How and where do I apply?

There are plenty of opportunities for ethical hackers in both the UK and the US. If you’re interested in this field, you may want to consider enquiring at:

  • Cybersecurity firms and consulting companies: many firms hire ethical hackers to conduct security assessments, penetration tests, and vulnerability scans for their clients. 
  • Government agencies: government agencies, such as law enforcement, defense, and intelligence organizations, employ ethical hackers to strengthen national cybersecurity efforts and protect critical infrastructure. 
  • Corporate IT departments: large corporations with in-house IT departments often have roles for ethical hackers to maintain and enhance their cybersecurity posture. 
  • Financial institutions: banks, credit unions, and financial service providers hire ethical hackers to protect sensitive financial data and maintain compliance with industry regulations. 
  • Technology companies: technology companies, including software developers, cloud service providers, and tech startups, often employ ethical hackers to secure their products and services. 
  • Healthcare and IT: the healthcare industry, with its focus on patient data privacy, requires ethical hackers to ensure the security of healthcare systems, electronic health records (EHRs), and medical devices. 
  • Freelance: experienced ethical hackers can establish their own consulting businesses or work as freelancers, offering their services directly to clients.

Work with us 

If you want a real taste of ethical hacking and the chance to be at the forefront of cybersecurity innovation, join our team at CovertSwarm. We’re always on the lookout for passionate individuals and you could be the latest addition to the Hive.

As a member of the swarm, you’ll have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge projects, collaborate with industry experts, and make a meaningful impact in the world of cybersecurity. We value creativity, continuous learning, and a dedication to ethical hacking principles.

If you’re ready to take your ethical hacking career to the next level, take a look at CovertSwarm’s careers and vacancies. If there’s no role for you yet, feel free to email your CV speculatively to us.