Do you love solving puzzles? Do you enjoy digging into how things work — especially technology and computing systems? Or even better: do you drag your friends to escape rooms?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, a career in ethical hacking might be for you. Ethical hacking is all about finding weaknesses in computer systems and networks and fixing them. Some ethical hackers work for small companies, completing quality assurance and penetration testing. Other ethical hackers work for tremendously large enterprises—"hacking" banks, government entities, and other highly-secured organizations.
A great place to start your ethical hacking career is through ethical hacking courses. However, that’s not the only avenue. Keep reading to learn how to become an ethical hacker!
What is an Ethical Hacker?
Before learning how to become a professional hacker, you should learn the basics. Today, the term "hacker" has negative connotations. But in the early days of programming and development, a hacker was just a highly skilled and creative computer specialist. It takes a lot of knowledge to break into a system, especially a highly-secured system.
An ethical hacker uses various programming skills and tools to try to break into systems and networks. Once they successfully breach the system, they provide recommendations for how to fix the weaknesses and flaws they discovered.
Unlike criminal hackers, ethical hackers work with organizations to improve their security. They use their skills to make systems and networks more secure, not to exploit them.
How Do You Become an Ethical Hacker?
Becoming an ethical hacker requires a combination of technical skills and people skills. Additionally, ethical hackers need to be knowledgeable and creative problem-solvers. They also need to communicate clearly, both in writing and in person.
Some ethical hackers even specialize in "social engineering." They don't break into a system digitally; instead, they try to get people to tell them what they need to know.
Most ethical hackers have a college degree in computer science, although some have degrees in electrical engineering or information security. In addition to a college degree, ethical hackers typically have several years of experience working in IT as security professionals or programmers.
Some ethical hackers are self-taught; they have developed their skills through independent study and trial-and-error. However, most employers prefer to hire candidates with formal education and training in ethical hacking.
How to Become an Ethical Hacker with No Experience
If you have no experience in computer science, the best path toward becoming an ethical hacker is to get a degree. You can:
- Seek certification in IT security;
- Attend a four-year computer science degree program; or
- Attend a two-year program explicitly focused on IT analysis and security.
What Skills Do You Need to Become an Ethical Hacker?
In addition to formal education and training, you need several skills to become a successful ethical hacker.
- Technical skills: You need a strong understanding of computer networks and how they work, including an understanding of common protocols such as TCP/IP and Ethernet. You should also be familiar with different types of networking hardware such as routers, switches, and firewalls.
- Programming skills: You don't need to be a master coder, but you should know how to write code in at least one common programming language, like Python or Java. Ethical hacking often requires custom scripting and coding, so the ability to write code isn't optional.
- Problem-solving skills: Ethical hacking is all about finding creative solutions to difficult problems. If hacking were easy, systems would be constantly vulnerable. You need to find ways into a system that the programmers and administrators didn't consider.
- Communication skills: When you find a vulnerability, you must clearly explain it to the people who can fix it. This means writing clear reports and oral presentations. Often, the people you are talking to won't have the same skill level that you have — but you need to be able to convey your discoveries’ importance.
As you can see, ethical hacking is actually a mix of hard skills and soft skills. While that makes the career a challenge, it's also what makes it alluring to many.
What Tools Do Ethical Hackers Use?
Ethical hackers use the same tools as black-hat hackers but for different purposes. Here are some of the most common ethical hacking tools:
- Nmap: A network exploration tool and security scanner. Used to find hosts and services on a network, as well as to identify security issues.
- Wireshark: A packet analyzer that can be used for network troubleshooting, analysis, software development, and more.
- Metasploit: A penetration testing tool used to test the security of systems and find vulnerabilities.
- Burp Suite: A web application security testing tool used to find vulnerabilities in web applications.
- Kali Linux: A Debian-based Linux distribution with a wide range of security and penetration testing tools.
An ethical hacker may use dozens of tools on a given project. Becoming an ethical hacker requires understanding these tools and learning when to use them.
Do You Need a Degree to Become an Ethical Hacker?
Ethical hacking requirements vary, but in general, yes. While many are willing to hire self-taught programmers without a degree, an ethical hacker has to be extremely skilled to be hired without one. Quite a lot about ethical hacking requires formal knowledge about the systems and processes used throughout networking and security.
But that doesn't mean it's essential. You might wonder: how can I become an ethical hacker without education? If you have significant experience within the IT industry already — and can prove your skills — it’s possible to get a job without formal education. At a minimum, you should pursue certification in the technologies you work most frequently with. For example, Cisco security certifications go a long way toward proving skills.
What is the Average Salary for an Ethical Hacker?
A career in ethical hacking is highly lucrative. If you have all the qualifications, you can land a salary above six figures.
According to Glassdoor, the average ethical hacker salary is $114,648. This includes total compensation. You may note that ethical hackers frequently work long hours or gain bonuses based on compensation, as is common in the software and IT field.
The best ethical hackers can make over $700,000 in total compensation, as they are extraordinarily important to an organization's security.
How to Become a Hacker for the Government
A professional ethical hacker working for the government has the same basic requirements as any other ethical hacker. But they will also need to pass rigorous background checks. Government entities don't usually hire "ethical hackers" specifically, but rather "penetration testers" and similar positions.
If you work as an ethical hacker for the government, you can easily find another position just about anywhere. But know that the government uses unique technologies and produces highly specific infrastructures. You will need to learn about government security specifically to become a hacker for the government.
Difference Between an Ethical Hacker and a Penetration Tester
A penetration tester is a security professional who simulates an attack on a system to find vulnerabilities.
Penetration testing is a subset of ethical hacking, but ethical hackers have a broader focus. Ethical hackers do whatever they can to get into a system — whereas penetration testers focus specifically on network penetration.
Freelance Ethical Hackers and Bug Bounties
Not all ethical hackers work for a specific organization. Some of them are freelancers, while some participate in bug bounty programs.
A bug bounty program is when an organization offers a cash reward to anyone who can find vulnerabilities in their systems. These programs are often open to the public, which means that anyone with the right skills can participate.
Bug bounties are a great way to get started in ethical hacking. They can help you build up your experience and portfolio to get a full-time job as an ethical hacker. Bug bounties are also a way to get into ethical hacking if you have no professional educational background.
The Top Courses and Certifications for Ethical Hacking
Want to learn more about ethical hacking? Here are some fantastic ethical hacking courses online:
- Become an Ethical Hacker (LinkedIn): This LinkedIn course teaches you about common and emerging system threats and helps you practice using tools to identify these threats. Moreover, it prepares for the Certified Ethical Hacker exam. Ideal for beginners, this is a great cause for those who want to learn more about whether ethical hacking is the right discipline for them.
- Penetration Testing and Ethical Hacking (Cybrary): An intermediate, 7-hour course, this Cybrary course covers ethical hacking and penetration testing basics. Developers and IT security professionals with some security knowledge can take this Cybrary course to brush up on the basic principles of hacking.
- Learn Ethical Hacking from Scratch (Udemy): This comprehensive course includes 135 security videos—a total of 16 hours of self-paced video learning. Students will be introduced to over 30 hacking tools and taught how to break into secure systems. In the end, students receive a certificate of completion.
If you want to prove your competence to potential employers, consider a certification course:
- Certified Ethical Hacker (EC-Council): A nationally recognized certification in commercial-grade hacking tools. The associated certification course includes hands-on hacking challenges and malware analysis.
- Penetration Testing with Kali Linux (Offensive Security): A self-paced course and certification exam where students can practice their skills, track progress, and get instant feedback.
- Enterprise Penetration Testing (SANS): Practical lab exercises and online study, which culminates in GIAC certification. Ideal for both ethical hackers and penetration testers.
In addition to the above, consider taking courses in security and networking. An ethical hacker is an expert in computer security first and foremost.
Now you know how to become an ethical hacker. It's not an easy career path, but it can be a gratifying (and lucrative) career for those who find it appealing.
If you want to become an ethical hacker, you first need to learn more about ethical hacking and computer security. The best start? This course is below.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can I Become an Ethical Hacker?
Yes, anyone can become an ethical hacker with the right skills and training. But that doesn't mean that it's a career for everyone. Taking a basic or beginner's course will give you insights into the role's demands.
2. What Qualifications Do You Need to be an Ethical Hacker?
Qualifications required for ethical hacker careers might include college degrees, two-year degree programs, and ethical hacking certifications. Others may gain experience in related fields, such as IT security.
3. How Long Does it Take to Become an Ethical Hacker?
The time it takes to become an ethical hacker depends on your previous experience and qualifications. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.
4. Do Ethical Hackers Get Paid?
Yes. Ethical hackers may be paid hourly, by the project, or with a salary. Ethical hackers may also work for themselves by collecting bug bounties.
5. Is Ethical Hacker a Good Career?
Ethical hacking is a growing field and an excellent career. There are many opportunities for those who excel at ethical hacking, although it requires a lot of time and creativity.
6. Do Ethical Hackers Work from Home?
Ethical hackers may work from home or in an office setting. They may also travel to meet with clients or conduct on-site ethical hacking services.