The Cyber Security Skills Needed to Start Your Career in Cyber

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What is cyber security, and why is it important?

Cyber security is a field devoted to the protection of computer systems, data, and information networks. The dangers to these systems are vast, and include:

  • Physical dangers to hardware, like a region’s electricity grid

  • Attempts to stop operations of these systems (for example, a denial-of-service attack that makes servers inaccessible)

  • Unauthorized access/intrusion into systems to commit spying, the theft of intellectual property, or hold data ransom

  • Repurposing systems from their intended use, like turning a baby monitor into a spy cam or using unsuspecting victims’ personal computers to mine cryptocurrencies

Cyber attacks are a risk to anyone who uses a computer, smart device, and/or the internet. The cyber security firm Lumu reports that 69% of North American companies reported being affected by ransomware in 2020.

Likewise, the United States suffered a major state-sponsored cyberattack in 2020 that impacted at least 2 branches of the federal government, 4 states, and many major firms including Microsoft, Equifax, and Cisco Systems.

And with Cyber Security Ventures predicting that the financial impacts of cybercrime will rise to $10.5 trillion in 20205 (from $6 trillion in 2021), the stakes will continue to grow as companies seek to develop sound security strategies.

Key Takeaways

  1. Cyber security is a fast-growing career that touches all industries.

  2. Solid programming skills are a requirement across the field.

  3. Key soft skills are a great way to stand out from the pack.

  4. Certifications and networking will be critical to your career trajectory.

  5. High-paying jobs are available across all disciplines of the field.

Is cyber security a smart career?

Cyber security is a fast-growing career option for almost anyone, regardless of your experience. The reason? Cyber security roles are needed at ‘every rung on the ladder’ to ensure that there is holistic coverage of potential vulnerabilities and cyber threats.

Worldwide spending on cyber security is going to reach $133.7 billion in 2022. (Gartner)

Think of all the personal data people have about you. Your doctor and pharmacist. Your bank and credit card companies. Your social media companies. Your phone provider. Not to mention all the work data you’ve transmitted on your home’s internet network during the pandemic (It’s no wonder cloud security is a bigger topic than ever).

We live in a data-driven society. Data privacy concerns dominate headlines, throwing one company after the next into real reputation risk. What drives these cyber criminals? Money, unsurprisingly. Verizon noted in their Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report that 86% of data breaches are financially motivated. 

And that means the market for company and consumer data will only become more competitive. Cyber security engineers, cyber threat analysts, pen testers, compliance analysts… careers dedicated to fighting this cybercrime are rising and rising.

A monster caught in a beam of light.

What are the hard technical cyber security skills you need to know?

So, what is it that cyber security professionals do? In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the technical tasks and methods that can be a core focus for professionals in the field.

Intrusion detection

In 2019, DataProt reported that 88% of professional hackers can infiltrate an organization within 12 hours. Companies require round-the-clock monitoring to try and catch bad actors before they do damage to vital systems or steal data. Intrusion detection is often the second line of defense  (after prevention) to mitigate the threat of cyberattacks.

Penetration testing

So how to prevent intrusions? Start with penetration testing (commonly called a ‘pen test’). Authorized hackers conduct simulated attacks to try and determine vulnerabilities that could be exploited by real hackers. These ‘ethical hackers’ or ‘white hat hackers’ can even employ ‘phishing’ attempts against real employees to determine if they are susceptible to such attacks.

Malware analysis, mitigation, and reversing

Malware can be especially damaging because it is easy to make and customize, and is designed to avoid detection while doing its damage. Cyber security analysts need to respond quickly to malware attacks, assessing and reversing damage in real-time to maintain business continuity. 

Risk analysts and security analysts

The risk management space is growing, and risk analysts help paint the broad picture of real and hypothetical areas of concern. Security analysts, meanwhile, focus on taking the current available set of tools and technologies while building innovative security solutions to mitigate risks. Many of the top skills in cyber security fall into the broad category of security analysis, making it a key area of growth.

Does cyber security require programming?

Yes. Cyber security requires programming. Even managers need to understand the highly complex technological underpinnings of computer systems and networks. The good news? Cyber security focuses on some of the most common and important programming languages in the field today, and the skills you learn in these languages will be portable far only cyber.

These are the most popular coding languages you need for cyber security:

C and C++

These languages make up the core of most operating systems and applications today, making them the foundationon for any cyber security career. Their capabilities in low-level processes and infrastructure that are key areas of hacker attention.

C and C++'s popularity by year according to pull request percentages on GitHub. C and C++ are trending even, and have around 10% of all GitHub pulls.

Python

Python is a high-level programming language. It will open your skillset to better automation and analysis while providing access to one of the largest libraries of third-party scripts available. It is another must-have.

Pythons popularity by year according to pull request percentages on GitHub. Python is trending even, at around 16% of all GitHub pulls.

JavaScript

Web-based cyber security brings its own set of problems (i.e. codes that execute when you visit a website). JavaScript’s broad popularity — it’s the most popular language in the world and critical to software development — makes it a critical language for understanding cyber threats to an organization’s web-based data, customers, and reputation.

JavaScript popularity by year according to pull request percentages on GitHub. JavaScript is trending slightly downward, though is the most popular language on GitHub at around 19.5% of pulls.

PHP

Nearly 4 out of 5 websites use PHP as their server-side programming language. Any cyber security career involving the web will involve PHP, especially if you’re combatting intrusion and redirect attempts, denial-of-service attacks, etc.

PHP's popularity by year according to pull request percentages on GitHub. PHP is trending downward, and has around 6% of all GitHub pulls.

GoLang

GoLang is the common term for the language ‘Go’. It made headlines in 2019 as one of the top 2 languages used by hackers (along with Python). Its memory management capabilities and similarity to C have made it especially popular in the cryptography space.

Go's popularity by year according to pull request percentages on GitHub. Go's is trending upward, and has around 9% of all GitHub pulls.

Powershell

Microsoft’s task automation and configuration management framework. The same level of power, access, and automation that makes it so valuable to system administrators makes it a prime target for hackers.

PowerShell's popularity by year. PowerShell is trending downward. It was used in ~.2% of all GitHub pull requests in 2020.

Ruby

A must-have for the penetration-testing field, given its use in Metasploit - and its broad web adoption as well.

Ruby's popularity by year according to pull request percentages on GitHub. Ruby is trending downward, and has around 6% of all GitHub pulls.

SQL

Structured Query Language’s (SQL) widespread use in databases makes it a target for intrusion and theft attempts. A common attack is an ‘SQL injection’, where hackers will try and corrupt, steal, or modify data for malicious purposes.

Assembly

The Assembly language is the human-readable version of machine code - the low-level language that directly controls a CPU. This makes it the language of choice for reverse engineering hackers who seek to rebuild programs for competitive intelligence or piracy, or learn how to better hack/compromise them. 

A chart showing the most popular languages in cyber security. JavaScript is the most popular, follinwed by Python, C/C++, PowerShell, Go, Ruby, Java, PHP, and Shell scripting.

What are the soft skills you need in cyber security?

Strong soft skills like communication are critical in cyber security. Hackers and programmers have a certain image, and you’ll want to combat this image and focus on developing your soft skills every bit as much as your hard technical skills. This will help your day-to-day coworker relationships, and be crucial for any future interest in management.

These are the most important soft skills you need in cyber security:

Customer mindset

The ability to understand what a customer wants — and to get them a satisfactory solution — is fundamental to any career. Whether the ‘customer’ is your company’s client or an internal team that requires your help with a project, you’ll stand out if you carry a ‘client service’ mentality.

Communication skills

Good communication is practically a superpower in the modern business climate. And, needless to say, this goes beyond just writing and speaking well. Show that you can actively listen and correctly interpret people’s points and you’ll find your work and relationships benefit as a result. And don’t forget a key part of communication: setting expectations correctly based on your time management, deadlines, and resource needs.

Problem-solving

So much of programming is problem-solving, and it's critical to bring that skill to other challenges. Implement logical processes and techniques and everyone will come to value your input on their projects.

Curiosity

Programmers often struggle because they don’t understand their industry as well as their business leaders do. Likewise, new programming languages, apps, and challenges present an active need for continuing education. Intellectual curiosity will help you ensure that your hard-earned skills don’t fall out of date. 

Further reading: 16 Soft Skills You Need to Succeed in Cyber Security

Information security analyst jobs will grow 31% by 2029 — 8x faster than other jobs (BLS)

Cyber security job outlook and salary

It’s never too early to begin reviewing job descriptions in the cyber security space. This will help you ensure your plan includes the necessary skills to find employment, and may introduce you to areas of cyber security you didn’t even know existed!

Penetration Tester

Penetration testers have one core focus: breaching the network security of a company. They employ the latest creative techniques and technologies to find weak spots before the bad guys do, and their reward is a lucrative industry salary. Further reading: How to Become a Pen Tester

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: $116,000

Compliance Analyst

Compliance analysts conduct audits, investigate incidents where controls weren't met, and evaluate the effectiveness of policies on real-life operations. This focus on quality assurance can make it the perfect path for detail-oriented people. Further reading: How to Become a Compliance Analyst

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: $119,000

Cyber security Engineer

A central role on any cyber security team. These cyber security engineers need to have a total view from identifying threats to implementing complex systems and procedures to stop them.

ZipRecruiter Average Salary: $120,000

Further reading: Cyber Security Jobs Guide

How do I become a cyber security professional?

Step 1: Choose your path

Do your research and pick a few similar jobs that sound like they fit your interests. Don’t feel like you need to have a bachelor’s degree in a related topic. If you are willing to put in the time and work required, a bootcamp might be just the option for you.

Step 2: Pick the right learning option

Once you know your general path, the next step is to buckle down and build the foundation of learning for your career plan. Bootcamps are a great way to learn because they offer:

  1. A focused, structured approach. For the length of your bootcamp, your primary focus will be to live and breathe cyber security in a hands-on environment.

  2. The investment incentive. Bootcamp tuition is a serious financial commitment in your career - and one you’ll be driven to ensure pays off.

  3. Small class sizes and strong networking opportunities. Bootcamps tend to provide a great student-to-teacher ratio, ensuring that you get personal attention and get to know your classmates. They often have connections to local companies seeking to hire based on the quality of previous talent.

What cyber security bootcamps provide the best skill set for cyber security jobs?

Here are just a few of the bootcamps worth checking out for your cyber security career move:

Evolve Security Academy (Chicago)

This Chicago-based option has in-person and online options, including a part-time program.

SecureSet (Colorado)

With three locations in Colorado, this school offers multiple programs in the cyber security space.

Fullstack Academy (New York)

The official cyber bootcamp of the City of New York, with full- and part-time options available.

Flatiron School’s Cybersecurity Analytics 

A 12-week immersive program focused on building a career as an analyst with capabilities in threat intel, security, and compliance. Options for New York, Washington DC, and as our Online Cybersecurity Analytics course.

Flatiron School’s Cybersecurity Engineering

Already have a technical background? This 15-week intensive program focuses on deep elements of detecting and defending against cybercriminals.

A screenshot of the CompTIA cyber security certification website

Step 3: Get your certification

Online certifications provide independent confirmations of your abilities. We typically recommend you start with the CompTIA Security+ global certification. It’s widely recognized and will help you start your career. Once you have that new experience, you can pursue a more specific path and certification.

Other popular cyber security certifications

As you progress in your career, you will find that there are more certifications, each focused around specific cyber disciplines. Three of the most sought-after include:

Step 4: Build your network and conduct an efficient job search

Success in every industry requires you to focus on building and maintaining a network that you can leverage in your job search. Cyber security careers are no different.

Make the most of your peer and leader connections at work and use LinkedIn and Angelist to stay in touch with current and former coworkers. Make sure they know about your decision to pursue cyber security as a career.

Likewise, consider joining one or more associations that cater to your line of work. The Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) is a major global not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing education, publications, and networking for cyber security professionals.

Few well-paying industries have such a high demand for talent and a relatively low barrier to entry. Now is the perfect time to consider if you want to redirect or augment your career with a move towards this fast-growing industry. Regardless of your industry, it will deepen your understanding of operations and open you up to an entire new world of opportunities.

Headshot of Michael Middleton

Michael Middleton

Writer

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