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Learn penetration testing with online courses and programs

Cybersecurity professionals use a variety of tactics to ensure the safety of sensitive information. Penetration testing is one way they evaluate the computer systems they monitor. Learn about penetration testing with online courses delivered through edX.

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing is a series of processes and techniques that simulate a real cyberattack. The ultimate goal is to identify security vulnerabilities in an organization’s databases, networks, and devices. Penetration tests are carried out by people known as ethical hackers, who understand how real hackers think and what they’re after. These ethical hackers may work on staff at a company or as external consultants. 

To fully understand what a penetration tester does, it’s helpful to know the three types of penetration testing. They are:

  • White box testing: the hacker has complete visibility into the network they’re attempting to hack.

  • Black box testing: the hacker doesn’t have any information ahead of time.

  • Gray box testing: the hacker has some but not all information.

In addition, penetration testing involves six steps: reconnaissance and planning, scanning, access retrieval, access maintenance, analysis, cleanup and remediation.1

To better understand the point of penetration testing, consider this example: An organization deploys a new human resources software that lets remote workers track their work schedule and request time off from home. The organization may hire a penetration tester to ensure this new service doesn’t create any unexpected entry points for cyber attackers. This process ultimately helps the organization keep company and customer data secure.

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Penetration testing course curriculum

If you’re interested in penetration testing training, online courses can offer hands-on experience applying the cybersecurity technique. Introductory classes may teach learners the fundamentals of penetration testing within the wider context of cybersecurity. In order to supplement your penetration testing knowledge and round out your cybersecurity skill set, it may be helpful to explore courses in computer forensics or information technology.

edX offers a variety of educational options to help new and experienced learners gain valuable penetration testing skills.

Penetration testing jobs

Because penetration testing is such an integral component in cybersecurity, it is often a required skill for a variety of jobs in the field. Some of the cybersecurity roles that use penetration testing in their general defense strategy include:

  • Penetration tester: These security practitioners design and execute penetration tests to uncover key security learnings.2

  • Information security analyst: These analysts craft and enact security plans to defend their organizations from cyberattacks. They’re often trained in penetration testing procedures to help keep their organizations secure.3

  • Computer systems administrators: These professionals oversee organization-wide installation, management, and support of devices and networks. Computer systems administrators can use penetration testing techniques to understand the security of devices they oversee and pivot accordingly.4

  • Cybersecurity consultant: These consultants identify and advise on an organization’s security vulnerabilities, much like penetration testers.5

Note that learning penetration testing on its own doesn’t mean you have the skills for the penetration testing jobs listed above. Some roles may require knowledge of other technical skills that can be acquired through a boot camp, a bachelor's degree, or a master’s degree. By exploring individual role descriptions for jobs you’re interested in, you can determine the full range of skills and educational credentials you need to qualify. 

How to become a penetration tester online

When learning penetration testing, you’ll be exposed to a number of technical topics, as well as particular technologies. Each is vital for real-world penetration testing efforts. You may also learn about:

  • Firewalls: Firewalls monitor incoming and outgoing network traffic. You often need to bypass these in penetration testing.

  • Scripting languages: To hack into an organization’s network, penetration testers use different scripting languages including Python, Ruby, Perl, and JavaScript.6

  • Decryption algorithms: Organizations often encrypt their data, and penetration testers must decrypt it as part of their ethical hacking process. 

  • Operating systems: Different operating systems have different security specifications. To effectively hack into their target system, great penetration testers should be familiar with them.

If you’re ready to start learning penetration testing, you can explore a variety of educational paths that can cover skills needed for this process, such as a bachelor's degree program in computer science, a coding boot camp, or a cybersecurity boot camp.