How to Become an Ethical Hacker: Quick Guide


We often associate “hackers” with images of people in dark hoodies trying to sabotage entire digital ecosystems—usually in exchange for astronomical amounts of money. As useful as that stereotype has been to Hollywood screenwriters, some hackers actually choose to use their powers for good and operate entirely above board. In fact, they get paid handsomely by companies and governments who want to test if their security systems are up to par.

All you need to become an ethical hacker is a love of problem-solving and fantastic research skills. As for the technical skills required on the job, there are multiple ways you can study and practice them as part of your cybersecurity career journey. 

Ethical Hacking 101

According to Dan Kaminsky, former computer researcher and Chief Scientist at WhiteOps, “almost all systems can be hacked, somehow. It is a less spoken of secret that such hacking has actually gone quite mainstream.” 

Knowing that there are malicious actors out there always trying to infiltrate and take control of companies’ and governments’ networks, many cybersecurity leaders choose to engage the services of white hat hackers, or pen testers, to legally breach their security systems. Doing so helps strengthen cybersecurity measures, reveal any vulnerabilities and generally make it much harder for malicious actors to break in. 

Even though ethical hacking is sanctioned by the target, pen testers use the same techniques, tools and methods a malicious attacker would enact. This makes their work essential when checking for weaknesses and entry points in a network, infrastructure and web application security. 

what is a hacker

What Does an Ethical Hacker Do?

Most of the time, you can find ethical hackers infiltrating a company’s network to uncover vulnerabilities. And like every good hacker, that means that before deploying attacks, they must first thoroughly research their clients and scope out the best way to deliver their attack. They often look for IP addresses, OS platforms, applications, advertised network ports, users, patch levels and anything else they might be able to leverage into an exploit.

Once they’ve found their way in, ethical hackers gain unauthorized access to their client’s systems—all while documenting exactly how they managed a successful attack. If they have been thorough in their research, the attack phase is normally not particularly difficult.

Contrary to popular belief, discipline and systematic thoroughness will get you further in ethical hacking than being some sort of computer genius.

Bonus points: if you ever dreamed of becoming “Mr. Robot”, you can become an ethical hacker for a living and get the thrill of infiltrating computer systems, but without the risk of the FBI showing up at your doorstep. Kevin Mitnik is a shining example of this. A reformed hacker, he is now a computer security consultant and cybersecurity author: “I’m still a hacker. I get paid for it now. I never received any monetary gain from the hacking I did before. The main difference in what I do now compared to what I did then is that I now do it with authorization.” 

ethical hackers

How to Get Started in Ethical Hacking

If you have a working knowledge of cybersecurity tactics, or are already working in information security, you probably know that the industry standard is to take the EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) exam. 

To ace this certification, you need to know the basics of programming, networking and servers. You’ll also need to learn the latest hacking tools and techniques used by information security professionals to lawfully break into an organization.

If, on the other hand, you are just getting started in cybersecurity, we recommend first building a comprehensive understanding of network security, Microsoft and Linux security, the basics of Python programming and many other essential cybersecurity subjects before specializing in ethical hacking. 

Whether you come from a tech background or not, NC State offers a Cybersecurity Bootcamp that will help you build the foundational skills you need to succeed in the skyrocketing field of cybersecurity.

Here is how it works: you’ll attend live, online classes led by cybersecurity experts, two sessions on weeknights and one on Saturdays. The whole program is a total of 400 hours of in-depth cybersecurity instruction and takes about 10-11 months to finish, depending on holidays.

You will learn from industry-leading, cybersecurity professionals who bring their experience directly into the classroom while you practice new skills through practical simulations and cyber labs that mimick real-world cybersecurity scenarios. In our proprietary platform, called CyWar, every course you take has a corresponding set of online resources, including study guides and additional hands-on exercises you can use to further hone your skills. 

The program dedicates 50 hours across 12 lessons to Ethical Hacking, giving you the broad foundations to pursue a career trajectory in this field, while helping you prepare for the CEH exam*. After taking this course, you will know how to perform common cyberattack methods and identify techniques and attack methodologies. You will also be able to describe and engage in ethical hacking processes and procedures.

While this class alone wouldn’t be enough to lay the foundation to a thriving career in ethical hacking, it can help you to both succeed in cybersecurity and specialize as a pen tester. What’s more, the NC State Cybersecurity Bootcamp includes a dedicated career services department that can guide you along your ethical hacking journey. They start working with learners early on, helping you with a professional resume, a polished LinkedIn account and access to our extensive network of hiring partners—so you can jumpstart your job search before you even complete the program. 

New cohorts start on a rolling basis, so to know when the next opportunity to enroll will be you can reach out to our admissions advisors at 919.874.5441 or use this Calendly link to schedule a call. They can answer any questions you have about pursuing a career in ethical hacking and help you decide if it’s a path that makes sense for your unique professional journey.

*While the curriculum provides the knowledge needed to perform well on industry exams, this is not a test-preparation program, where the primary focus is the students’ performance on the exam. Certification exams are not conducted as part of the program and require additional costs not included in tuition.

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