A complete guide to becoming an ethical hacker (2022)

This guide is all about how to become an ethical hacker. It includes detailed information on the role an ethical hacker plays, some of the skills and experience necessary to become an ethical hacker, and strategies for landing a job as an ethical hacker.


  • Role of ethical hacker
  • Skills needed
  • Certifications and education
  • How to get experience
  • Typical assignments
  • The recap

Historically, defensive and offensivecybersecurity pursuits have been described using the monikers of whitehathackers and blackhat hackers respectively. These nicknames were used todistinguish the good guys from the bad guys. While both of these terms arestill commonly used, at least one of them may not be adequately descriptive ofthe various roles found in today’s modern cybersecurity ecosystem.

Although a blackhat hacker is still just the bad guy, the good guys are now better described using expressions such as red team, blue team, purple team, ethical hacker, and penetration tester. More specifically, red teams provide offensive security services and blue teams provide defensive services. Purple, being the combination of red and blue, identifies those teams that provide some of each flavor of security service.

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The term ethical hacker includes all security professionals that provide offensive services, whether red team, pentester, or freelance offensive consultant. Security analysts or engineers are also job titles that may include offensive elements. Often these offensive security services will be rolled up under a threat and vulnerability management group within a company.

While there are some subtle technical differences, say between the services provided by an independent offensive cybersecurity consultant and an in-house pentester, for this guide these various names for ethical hackers are used interchangeably.

An ethical hacker’s primary purpose is to view security from the adversary’s perspective in an effort to find vulnerabilities that could be exploited by bad actors. This provides defensive teams the opportunity to mitigate by devising a patch before a real attack can occur. This objective is served by executing simulated cyberattacks in a controlled environment. While much of the value that an ethical hacker provides is related to testing security controls and devices for perimeter penetration vulnerabilities, they also look more broadly for weaknesses that can be exploited deep within a network or application such as data exfiltration vulnerabilities.

Role of an ethical hacker

Ethical hackers can be independent freelance consultants, employed by a firm that specializes in simulated offensive cybersecurity services, or they can be an in-house employee protecting a company’s website or apps. Knowledge of current attack methods and tools is a requirement across these employment options, however, the in-house ethical hacker may be required to have an intimate knowledge of only a single software or digital asset type.

While relatively new to the security industry, one advantage that an in-house red team may provide is that the team will necessarily have a more intimate understanding of how their own systems and applications are constructed than would an independent consultant. This insider knowledge provides the red team an advantage, as long as they can avoid becoming myopic in their view. It would take real attackers years to replicate this advantage. In-house teams are largely thought to be less expensive than the continuous use of a consulting firm as well.

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Conversely, a benefit that an external ethical hacker may provide is a fresh set of eyes to identify vulnerabilities that may be overlooked by the internal team. Even organizations that employ an internal red team may occasionally contract an external ethical hacker to provide this fresh look at their defenses.

For any external offensive security service provider, it is especially important to obtain written permission from the client before beginning any offensive activities. This permission should detail the systems, networks, applications, and web sites that will be included in the simulated attack. Do not increase the scope of the service without additional written permission to do so.

In keeping with the industry’s use of colors to delineate between various cybersecurity roles and functions, there are white-box, black-box, and gray-box ethical hacker engagements. A white-box engagement is when the security professional is given as much information about the target system and application as is possible. This allows the simulated attack to go wide and deep very quickly looking for vulnerabilities that it would take a real bad actor a very long time to uncover.

Conversely, a black-box engagement is when no insider information is given to the ethical hacker. This more closely reflects the circumstances of a real attack and can provide valuable insight into what a real attack vector may look like. As the name implies, a gray-box engagement then denotes the simulation of an attack where the attacker has already penetrated the perimeter and may have spent some time inside the system or application.

Many firms enlist the help of all three engagement types in conjunction with both in-house and external ethical hackers. This variation of applied knowledge can provide the best view of what protections must be deployed but is also much more expensive to undertake.

Possessing ethical hacker skills and knowledge is helpful for many other security roles. These skills are vital to network security analysts and network engineers. Purple teams need people with offensive skills. Application security developers benefit from an understanding of offensive methods and tools. Security researchers, commonly known as bug hunters, depend highly on their knowledge of offensive tactics. Many successful bug hunters display an understanding that reaches deeper than the application layer to the network layer and other areas that can be exploited.

The skills required to become an ethical hacker

While there are plenty of anecdotal stories of blackhat hackers being converted to be whitehats in a bygone era, the most important requirement for becoming a successful ethical hacker today is to have, as is found in the name, high ethical standards. Ethics are what separate the good guys from the bad guys. There are plenty of blackhat hackers that have adequate technical skills to be an ethical hacker, but they lack the discipline of character to do the right thing regardless of the perceived benefits of doing otherwise.

A history of cybercrime poses an unacceptable risk for a member of a cybersecurity team. For a large organization with an astute legal team, this type of risk would represent a nonstarter. A word to the wise then is, when looking for work as an ethical hacker, a resume that includes any work that even smells of unauthorized work or unethical behavior is a fast way to be disqualified. While people can certainly change over time, most employers accept that developing a set of ethical life-guiding standards is much more involved than just desiring a career change.

Second to having the “ethical” part of this colloquial nickname covered is the need to have the “hacker” part covered as well. A candidate for an ethical hacker job must be able to demonstrate advanced cybersecurity technical skills. The ability to recommend mitigation and remediation strategies are a part of the desired experience.

To become an ethical hacker a candidate must understand networks, both wired and wireless. They must be proficient with operating systems, especially Windows and Linux. They need to understand firewalls and file systems. They must know how file permissions work and be familiar with servers, workstations, and computer science generally.

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Strong coding skills are essential and direct, manual, and hands-on attack methods must be clearly understood and demonstrated. In short, an ethical hacker should have defended so many assets over their career that imitating and then thinking a few steps ahead of the adversary comes almost as second nature.

Above and beyond good ethics and strong technical skills is a special mix of creative and analytical thinking. Ethica hackers need to be able to think like the adversary. They must understand what motivates the bad actors and be able to estimate how much time and effort the blackhat may be willing to apply toward any specific target. To do this, the pentester must understand the value of the data and systems they protect.

Ethical hacker certifications and education

The two certifications that are specific to ethical hacking are Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP).

EC-Council describes their CEH certification is these terms: “A Certified Ethical Hacker is a skilled professional who understands and knows how to look for weaknesses and vulnerabilities in target systems and uses the same knowledge and tools as a malicious hacker, but in a lawful and legitimate manner to assess the security posture of a target system(s). The CEH credential certifies individuals in the specific network security discipline of Ethical Hacking from a vendor-neutral perspective.”

Any number of other cybersecurity professional certifications offered by EC-Council will lend themselves toward becoming more hireable as an ethical hacker.

Offensive Security describes their OSCP certification, saying “The OSCP examination consists of a virtual network containing targets of varying configurations and operating systems. At the start of the exam, the student receives the exam and connectivity instructions for an isolated exam network that they have no prior knowledge or exposure to.

The successful examinee will demonstrate their ability to research the network (information gathering), identify any vulnerabilities and successfully execute attacks. This often includes modifying exploit code with the goal to compromise the systems and gain administrative access.

The candidate is expected to submit a comprehensive penetration test report, containing in-depth notes and screenshots detailing their findings. Points are awarded for each compromised host, based on their difficulty and level of access obtained.”

A bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field is a good place to start your career. Computer science or network engineering education provides a recommended foundation for work in the security field. When considering a bachelor’s program in the field of cybersecurity give priority to programs with a strong interdisciplinary focus.

Good programs will emphasize computer engineering, computer science, and business management skills. Look for programs that include courses in technical writing and legal issues surrounding technology and ethics. The best cybersecurity professionals are well-rounded individuals who can see their field through a wide-angle lens.

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Even with a degree and a professional certification or two, self-study is needed to keep up on current attack methods and offensive strategies. A home lab can be very useful. Youtube videos, internet groups and forums, and social media posts and exchanges are all methods used by successful ethical hackers to keep their edge over blackhat hacker.

How to get experience as an ethical hacker

Experience with vulnerability testing tools, such as Metasploit, Netsparker, and OpenVAS, is very helpful for ethical hackers. These tools and there are many more of them, are designed to save time when searching for known vulnerabilities. These or similar tools may provide a useful framework for vulnerability scanning and management but should represent only the starting point for an experienced ethical hacker. Manual simulated attacks must be directed toward the target as well. Knowledge and experience related to how these attacks are performed are essential.

The path to finding work as an ethical hacker will almost invariably pass through many years as a member of a security team providing defensive security services. Assignment to an elite offensive team is most commonly a progression through the ranks of the department. Often beginning with work as a security specialist, security administrator, or security software developer, additional experience and education will qualify a candidate for a place on one of the security specialty teams or work as a freelance consultant.

Helpful experience extends beyond past IT security work. Social engineering and physical penetration tests are also applicable skills. Many attacks begin with intel gathered using an extended social engineering campaign. Knowledge of social engineering strategies and tactics can be very helpful in understanding the entire threatscape.

Physical breaches to a server room or data center will also sometimes precede a digital attack. An understanding of what physical assets are vulnerable will help an ethical hacker identify the types and methods that are likely to be used in a real event.

Cybercriminals must become evermore innovative as security professionals deny them the use of their previous methods and tactics. Physical attacks, including the use of drones to sniff out unprotected networks, are becoming more frequently employed to gather intel and initiate cyberattacks. An ethical hacker must anticipate and simulate the use of traditional and non-traditional attack vectors to provide the most comprehensive threat analysis possible.

Typical ethical hacking assignments

Typical work assignments for an ethical hacker include threat modeling, security assessments, vulnerability threat assessments (VTA), and report writing. Assuredly the responsibilities of this role will vary from company to company but these staples will nearly always be included in the job description.

Threat modeling

Threat modeling is a process used to optimize network security by identifying vulnerabilities and then determining countermeasures to prevent an attack or mitigate the effects of an attack against the system. In the context of threat modeling, a threat is a potential or actual adverse event that may be malicious (such as a denial-of-service attack) or incidental (such as the failure of computer hardware), and that can compromise the assets of the enterprise. An ethical hacker would contribute to this process by providing a comprehensive view of the possible malicious attacks and their resultant consequences for the organization.

The objective of effective threat modeling is to conclude where the greatest focus should be to keep a system secure. This can change as new circumstances develop and become known, applications are added, removed, or improved, and user demands unfold. Threat modeling is an iterative process that consists of defining assets, recognizing what each application does with respect to these assets, creating a security profile for each application, identifying potential threats, prioritizing potential threats, and documenting adverse events and the actions taken in each case.

The ethical hacker’s role is imperative in that it allows the threat modeling to remain theoretical rather than post mortem after an actual attack.

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Security assessment

An ethical hacker, whether a pentester or a red team leader, will often be assigned the task of providing a security assessment. Simply put, an information security assessment is a risk-based measurement of the security posture of a system or enterprise. Security assessments are periodic exercises that test an organization’s security preparedness. They include checks for vulnerabilities related to the IT systems and business processes, as well as recommending steps to lower the risk of future attacks.

Security assessments are also useful for determining how well security-related policies are adhered to. They help to shore up policies designed to prevent social engineering and can identify the need for additional or enhanced security training. Culminating in a report that identifies weaknesses and makes recommendations, the security assessment is an invaluable risk management tool.

Vulnerability threat assessment

A vulnerability threat assessment is a process used to identify, quantify, and rank the vulnerabilities relevant to a system along with the threats that could possibly exploit those vulnerabilities. While closely related to a security assessment, the VTA is conducted to identify and correlate specific threats and vulnerabilities. The basic security assessment, described above, is used to identify vulnerabilities and evaluate the security posture of the enterprise independent of any specific threat. The VTA is a more threat-based assessment.

Examples of systems for which vulnerability threat assessments should be performed include, but are not limited to, information technology systems, energy supply systems, water supply systems, transportation systems, and communication systems. Such assessments may be conducted on behalf of a range of different organizations, from small businesses up to large regional or national infrastructure entities. Each of these system types and/or enterprises will require someone in an ethical hacker role to perform the VTA.

Report writing

A crucial element for carrying out the assignments of an ethical hacker is the ability to write clear and concise professional reports. Gathering data, identifying vulnerabilities, and correlating threats are of little value if the appropriate information can not be articulated to risk management leaders. Reports submitted from the red team are often the impetus for significant security resource expenditures. Risk management professionals need to have total confidence in the findings of ethical hackers in their organization. In some cases, an ethical hacker will be an outside consultant retained by a firm to provide the information needed to justify security expenditures for upper management or board of directors. In the world of security consulting, the report is the primary deliverable and is of the utmost importance.

When considering possible professional certifications and educational opportunities to elevate a career to include ethical hacking, do not underestimate the importance of business writing expertise. The ability to produce a well-written report will boost an individual’s career over an otherwise equally qualified peer.

Ethical hacking in review

Being a member of an in-house red team or working as a freelance whitehat hacker are exciting vocations. As far as operations level positions go, they are highly sought after positions that can engender a level of respect and provide a degree of prestige within the cybersecurity community. Ethical hacker jobs are necessary for the effective protection of networks, systems, and applications. This expertise is required throughout national infrastructure entities and to secure critical or sensitive data across all industries.

For many, the term ethical hacker is an oxymoron. It indicates two opposing notions. One is that of high ethical standards and the other that of “hacking” which is usually associated with nefarious activity. An offensive security professional may be a better description, but ethical hacker is often used to describe this genre of security professionals because let’s face it, ethical hacker is more mysterious sounding.

Regardless of whether or not the word hacker is used in the job description, these jobs are not for the morally questionable and certainly not for anyone who has a history of being a bad actor. Ethical hackers are necessarily privy to sensitive information, the divulging of which could be catastrophic for the enterprise. A security clearance is often required for government employees and government contractors. Obtaining a security clearance will include a background investigation and an examination of financial and social media data.

With the relatively rare exception of the independent freelance offensive cybersecurity consultant, ethical hackers normally work as part of a team. If on a red team the other team members will be like-skilled ethical hackers or pen-testers and the team will be part of the overall security department. In a smaller organization, the ethical hacker may be the only person with an offensive role, but will invariably be a part of a larger security team. The ability to work well with other team members and to communicate effectively is critical to success. An ethical hacker is not the stereotypical hoodie-wearing young person working out of his parent’s basement – that decided to trade their black hat in for a white one. She is more often an educated, experienced, skilled, and articulate professional that is dedicated to making the world a safer place to live and work.

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While history may provide examples of self-taught gritty individualists pulling themselves up by their digital bootstraps to the pinnacle of cybersecurity ops, an education with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, combined with one or more specialized professional certifications, is the standard for ethical hackers. Years of mettle-proving experience in software development and/or more traditional defensive security roles is not at all unusual for successful ethical hackers.


What should I study to become an ethical hacker? ›

Most ethical hacking jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in computer engineering, or a related field. Coursework can be substituted for sufficient experience in some cases.

Can I teach myself to become a hacker? ›

The short answer: almost anyone can learn to hack. The longer answer is that it's a good fit for people with specific backgrounds and personality types. People who have some knowledge of computer programming and a baseline vocabulary to draw on would thrive in these learning environments.

How many years does it take to become an ethical hacker? ›

It can take anywhere between 18 months to six years to fully develop your ethical hacking skills. If you are starting with no relevant hacking or coding skills, it will likely take you longer. However, if you already know how to code, you can complete the CEH online training and test in as little as five days.

Who is No 1 ethical hacker in world? ›

Kevin Mitnick
Other namesThe Condor, The Darkside Hacker
OccupationInformation technology consultant Author
Organization(s)Mitnick Security Consulting Chief Hacking Officer at KnowBe4, Inc
Board member ofKnowBe4
7 more rows

What coding language do hackers use? ›

Web Hacking: Currently, JavaScript is one of the best programming languages for hacking web applications. Understanding JavaScript allows hackers to discover vulnerabilities and carry web exploitation since most of the applications on the web use JavaScript or its libraries.

What is the salary of ethical hacker? ›

Ethical Hacker Salary (2022): What You'll Make and Why
22 Sept 2022

What do hackers learn first? ›

An individual planning to become a hacker will need to learn about programming, which is considered to be a vital step. A variety of software programs are now available that make hacking easier, however, if you want to know how it is done, you will definitely need to have basic knowledge about programming.

Do hackers need to know programming? ›

Programming is the most important skill that every hacker must master. Anything that is connected to the internet can be hacked. And anything that has digital security requires the knowledge of coding. This is why a hacker must be well-versed with multiple computer languages for hacking.

What skills do ethical hackers need? ›

Understanding the Skills Needed to Become an Ethical Hacker
  • Information security and ethical hacking.
  • Reconnaissance techniques.
  • System hacking phases and attack techniques.
  • Network and perimeter hacking.
  • Web application hacking.
  • Wireless network hacking.

Who hacked NASA? ›

Gary McKinnon
Other namesSolo
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
Known forComputer hacking
2 more rows

Who is the youngest hacker in the world? ›

Kristoffer von Hassel

What are the 3 types of hackers? ›

There are three well-known types of hackers in the world of information security: black hats, white hats and grey hats. These colored hat descriptions were born as hackers tried to differentiate themselves and separate the good hackers from the bad.

What are the 7 types of hackers? ›

Types Of Hackers
  • White Hat / Ethical Hackers.
  • Black Hat Hackers.
  • Gray Hat Hackers.
  • Script Kiddies.
  • Green Hat Hackers.
  • Blue Hat Hackers.
  • Red Hat Hackers.
  • State/Nation Sponsored Hackers.
26 Aug 2022

How many hours do ethical hackers Work? ›

Work Place

An ethical hacker typically works 8-9 hours a day and 35-40 hours a week. Their work hours may increase amidst deadlines or security threats.

Can you get CEH for free? ›

The free CEH practice course which is developed by Brainmeasures is really beneficial for you if you really have an aim of passing the ethical hacking certification and work confidently as a certified ethical hacker.

What do hackers study in college? ›

Any course which gives knowledge of computer languages, software and programming can help to become an ethical hacker. BCA, B. Tech computer science are the preferred courses. Many institutes also offer short term (6 months ethical hacking courses) to master the skills of hacking.

Why do hackers love Python? ›

Besides the given reasons, Python is the most loved programming language used by hackers since it's an open-source language which means that hackers can use the stuff that other hackers have previously made. Besides being free and high-level language, it also comes with a bank of genius support.

Can you hack with C++? ›

C ++ programming language can be used for hacking and in addition to C ++ programming language, there are other languages for hacking that we want to mention in this article.

What companies hire ethical hackers? ›

  • CyberArk.
  • Deloitte Cyber.
  • eSentire.
  • Evolution Equity Partners.
  • KnowBe4.
  • Mastercard.
  • Microsoft.
  • Secureworks.
12 Dec 2020

Can ethical hackers work from home? ›

To become a remote ethical hacker, you need to have professional or personal experience with cybersecurity and the principles of hacking. Having a bachelor's degree in cybersecurity, information technology, computer science, or network architecture is very useful for getting remote ethical hacker work.

What is the salary of hacker in Google? ›

As per Glassdoor, an ethical hacker salary in Google per month is around INR 5 lakhs!

Can I become ethical hacker after 12th? ›

Aspirants can opt for graduate and post-graduate courses in Ethical Hacking after completing their 12th standard. Ethical Hacking diploma and certification courses are also available after 10th standard. Admissions to bachelor and master courses are mostly done through state or national entrance examinations.

Is becoming an ethical hacker hard? ›

Becoming an ethical hacker is simple but not easy. There are various things you have to learn with a programming language and tools to help you in the field. In addition, hacking is ever-changing, and you need to keep up with the trends and tools being used.

Do hackers go to college? ›

There are several education requirements to become a hacker. Hackers usually study computer science, computer engineering or finance. 44% of hackers hold a bachelor's degree and 28% hold a high school diploma.

What do you have to learn to be a hacker? ›

As a hacker, you will need to develop skills that will help you get the job done. These skills include learning how to program, use the internet, good at solving problems, and taking advantage of existing security tools.

Is ethical hacker a good career? ›

A. Yes, it is a good career if you are interested in the ethical hacking and cybersecurity field but it requires a great knowledge of the whole IT field.

Can I get CEH without experience? ›

To be considered for testing without attending training, candidates must be approved via the CEH application process. They must have at least two years of work experience in the Information Security domain.

How many types of hackers are there? ›

There are three well-known types of hackers in the world of information security: black hats, white hats and grey hats. These colored hat descriptions were born as hackers tried to differentiate themselves and separate the good hackers from the bad.

Can I become a hacker without degree? ›

Yes, you can become an ethical hacker without a degree by attending cyber security coding bootcamps. However, you will need to gain penetration testing field experience before qualifying for most ethical hacker positions. Is It Hard to Become an Ethical Hacker?

How many programming languages do hackers know? ›

What programming languages do ethical hackers use? PHP, C, C+, SQL, Python and Ruby are the basic programming languages that ethical hackers use.

How hard is CEH test? ›

A passing score varies, depending on which version of the exam you take, ranging from 60% to 85%. So, exams with many tough questions may have a passing score as low as 60%, while tests with easier questions may require a score of 78% or higher to pass.

What jobs can hackers get? ›

Common job titles within the field of ethical hacking include:
  • Penetration Tester.
  • Vulnerability Assessor.
  • Information Security Analyst.
  • Security Analyst.
  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
  • Ethical Hacker.
  • Security Consultant.
  • Security Engineer/Architect.

What is the salary of government hacker? ›

Ethical Hacking Career Opportunities, Salaries, and Progression. The ethical hacker salary in India ranges from INR 1.77 lakh per annum and goes up to INR 40 lakh per annum.

What do hackers learn first? ›

An individual planning to become a hacker will need to learn about programming, which is considered to be a vital step. A variety of software programs are now available that make hacking easier, however, if you want to know how it is done, you will definitely need to have basic knowledge about programming.

What skills do ethical hackers need? ›

Understanding the Skills Needed to Become an Ethical Hacker
  • Information security and ethical hacking.
  • Reconnaissance techniques.
  • System hacking phases and attack techniques.
  • Network and perimeter hacking.
  • Web application hacking.
  • Wireless network hacking.

What are the mindset skills of hackers? ›

The hacker mindset is about thinking about all of the possibilities in any situation. It's about thinking of all the ways you can use a clay brick. You can use it to build a wall, use it as a paperweight, use it as a doorstop, use it to prevent a hot frying pan from melting a plastic table covering.


1. Become an Ethical Hacker for $0
(The Cyber Mentor)
2. you need to learn HACKING RIGHT NOW!! // CEH (ethical hacking)
3. 2022 Cybersecurity roadmap: How to get started?
(David Bombal)
4. A Comprehensive Guide to Ethical Hacking
(Hacker Combat Official)
5. How To Become A ETHICAL HACKER (Step by Step Guide)

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