Career Insight

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing represented by digital screen with security symbols

The widespread adoption of modern technology has helped businesses boost efficiency and minimize costs. But it’s also made their processes and systems more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

The latest statistics reveal that the United States witnessed 817 cases of data compromises in the first half of 2022. These events affected more than 53 million individuals.¹

As organizations implement hybrid working models, it’ll expand the attack surface further. This requires companies to build robust, fail-proof security protocols to prevent, detect, and fight data breaches, ransomware attacks, and other threats. That, in turn, highlights the importance of penetration testing.

But what exactly is penetration testing, and is it a viable career path?

Penetration Testing: A Closer Look

Penetration testing or pen testing is an effective way to analyze and assess an organization’s existing security infrastructure and identify potential vulnerabilities. It involves simulating a cyberattack to detect gaps in a company’s applications, networks, systems, and security protocols.

Its goal is to help organizations identify, mitigate, and deal with cyberattacks. Additionally, it allows companies to maintain business continuity and assess and improve their incident response plans. It also ensures compliance with data security and privacy laws and enhances employee awareness about security policies.

Typically, pen testing involves the following steps:

  • Reconnaissance
  • Scanning
  • Vulnerability assessment
  • Exploitation
  • Reporting


At this stage, a penetration tester collects extensive details about the target organization. That includes its IT infrastructure, network topology, applications, and security systems.


The next step involves taking a closer look at the target systems and networks to identify open ports. A penetration tester usually leverages different tools for this purpose.

Vulnerability Assessment

In this step, a tester uses data collected in the first two phases to discover and identify potential vulnerabilities. Also, they determine which of these vulnerabilities they can exploit.


This is the most crucial step. A penetration tester leverages a variety of tools to attack the target system using the identified vulnerabilities. They take precautions to ensure that the simulated attack doesn’t disrupt business continuity or cause any lasting damage.


This step involves documenting the information and insights collected from the pen test in the form of a report. The target organization uses this report to identify and eliminate gaps in its security strategy.

Types of Penetration Testing

Depending on the level of access provided, penetration testing is classified as follows:

  • Black box
  • White box
  • Gray box

Black Box Penetration Testing

In black box, the tester has little to no prior knowledge of a company’s IT infrastructure, network topology, and security protocols. It’s also known as external penetration testing.

This type of pen testing closely mimics real-life cyberattacks, where the hacker only has access to publicly available information about a company.

It helps organizations determine how long it’ll take a hacker to disrupt operations once a security breach has occurred. Also, black box pen testing helps identify gaps hackers can exploit to gain unauthorized access.

White Box Penetration Testing

In white box, the tester has extensive knowledge of a company’s applications, networks, and systems. That, in turn, helps them design attacks targeting specific security vulnerabilities.

White box pen testing usually focuses on identifying and fixing exploitable vulnerabilities hackers will exploit once they gain unauthorized access. This helps organizations strengthen their overall security posture.

Gray Box Penetration Testing

In gray box, the tester has partial knowledge of a company’s IT and security infrastructure. It’s typically used to test problem areas specific to the organization.

Besides these classifications, penetration testing can be of different types depending on what’s being tested. These include:

  • Social engineering
  • Physical
  • Network
  • Web application
  • Cloud
  • Database
  • IoT

What Does a Penetration Tester Do?

The role of a penetration tester (or pen tester) isn’t restricted to testing IT and network infrastructure and uncovering vulnerabilities. They also have to advise companies on how to mitigate the detected vulnerabilities and fortify their cybersecurity strategy.

Additionally, a pen tester has to perform regular security audits and system tests. They even help organizations improve their business continuity and incident response plans. Also, they might be responsible for developing and updating security policies.

Should You Pursue a Career in Penetration Testing?

According to an IBM report, the average cost of a data breach reached an all-time high of USD 4.34 million in 2022. Besides revenue loss and legal battles, cyberattacks also affect an organization’s reputation and customer relationships.²

The growing frequency of cyberattacks and their serious consequences make penetration testers indispensable to companies. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the employment of ethical hackers will increase by 35% by 2031.³

The rising demand for pen testers is also evident in their salaries. According to Glassdoor, on average, a penetration tester earns $103,030 annually.⁴ That puts it on par with other job titles, such as information security engineer and software developer.

As a penetration tester, you’ll find opportunities in various sectors, from healthcare and retail to government agencies. Also, you can apply for various information security jobs, including ethical hacker, security engineer, and security architect.

How to Become a Penetration Tester

The first step to becoming a penetration tester is to develop the necessary skill set. Start by building top-notch coding skills. You’ll need a strong foundation in different programming languages, including Java and Python, to design and run pen tests.

Next, develop a deep understanding of web application security and network protocols. You must be well-versed in using different security tools and pen testing tools, such as Metasploit, Nmap, Hydra, etc.

It’s also crucial to build your analytical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Also, consider earning a certificate, such as Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and Licensed Penetration Tester (LPT).

Build Your Career in Cybersecurity

If you want to pursue a career in cybersecurity, becoming a penetration tester is a promising option. With the growing number of data breaches, online frauds, and cyberattacks, there are plenty of opportunities for pen testers.

Kenzie Academy from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) has designed an extensive Cybersecurity Certificate program to help you master the fundamentals. The course provides you with the essential skills and knowledge you will need to succeed as a pen tester.

Are you ready to take your career to the next level? Apply now and take the next step to become a successful penetration tester.


¹ Statista, “Annual number of data compromises and individuals impacted in the United States from 2005 to first half 2022” on the internet (Viewed Dec. 26, 2022)

² IBM, “How much does a data breach cost in 2022?” on the internet (Viewed Dec. 27, 2022)

³ U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Outlook Handbook Information Security Analysts” on the internet (Viewed Dec. 27, 2022)

⁴ Glassdoor, “Penetration Tester Salaries“ on the internet (Viewed Dec. 27, 2022)

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