Cybersecurity engineer job interview questions can take many forms, but all serve a singular purpose: Allowing a potential employer to evaluate how well you might protect a company’s employees and infrastructure from cyberattacks.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which unleashed virus-themed phishing and other attacks on corporate tech stacks, cyberattacks were increasing worldwide at a pretty rapid clip. Companies have been anxious to add positions to their security teams, meaning that technologists with the right combination of cybersecurity training and skills have a good chance of landing a job.
Indeed, for the past few years, finding enough qualified engineers to fill open cybersecurity jobs has proven challenging. According to CyberSeek, a cybersecurity analytics site developed by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education at NIST, CompTIA and Lightcast, the U.S. needs 530,000 more cybersecurity specialists to close existing supply gaps. “Despite concerns about a slowing economy, demand for cybersecurity workers remains historically high. Companies know cybercrime won't pause for a market downturn, so employers can't afford to pause their cybersecurity hiring," Will Markow, Lightcast Vice President of Applied Research-Talent, wrote in a January statement accompanying that data.
While there are numerous open positions in cybersecurity, the competition is fierce. Preparing for cybersecurity engineer interview questions is one of the most important ways that both seasoned professionals and those new to the tech industry can find suitable employment.
What is a cybersecurity engineer?
In simplest terms, a cybersecurity engineer is tasked with coming up with ways to prevent cyberattacks and intrusions. On a tactical level, their daily workflow might involve everything from evaluating vulnerabilities to patching software to briefing senior leadership about the latest threats. It’s a complex job that demands strong skills in numerous areas!
If you’re interested in cybersecurity training, there are multiple resources out there. If you’re totally new to cybersecurity, start with the University of Washington’s “Building a Cybersecurity Toolkit” course; Tripwire also has a great list of courses and training. Massive online learning hubs such as Coursera and Udemy also have educational offerings (some free, some paid).
What do I need to succeed in a cybersecurity engineer interview?
With cybersecurity engineer interview questions, recruiters and hiring managers are looking not only for a mix of skills and certifications, but also problem-solving abilities, a willingness to learn, and the ability to handle stressful situations that come with an attack surface that is rapidly expanding, said Terence Jackson, the CISO at Thycotic, a Washington D.C.-based security firm.
“When interviewing candidates, I look for individuals with investigative and curious minds, problem-solving skills and a passion to learn,” Jackson told Dice. “Depending on the role and level, previous experience or certifications may come into play. As an industry, we have been saying for years there is a shortage of people to fill roles in security. Due to the current situation we find ourselves in, I believe we have an opportunity to recruit, train and retain talent during this time to fill that gap.”
What is the best way to prepare for cybersecurity engineer interview questions?
The best way to prepare for cybersecurity engineer interview questions is to learn as much as possible about the company or organization that you’re applying to. This includes reading up on its structure, its offerings, its products and technology, as well as what the job entails. If that sounds like a bit of a cliché in terms of advice, you’re right—but you absolutely need to do that kind of deep research before proceeding with the cybersecurity engineer interview.
In addition, it’s worth diving deep into the company’s specific industry, and what that potentially means for the company’s tech stack and security needs. For example, does the firm deal in threat intelligence or endpoint protection? Is it looking to fill a position within its SOC, or does it need someone who specializes in network security?
The answers to those questions can determine what your daily workflow will look like. Are you looking to spend your days patching, or will you tackle more strategic assignments?
“Brush up on what’s new with some of the specific requirements—it is easy to miss out on what’s taking place within your own industry if your last organization was not at the forefront (possibly why you’re looking),” said Gary Bresien, senior recruiter at Coalfire, a cybersecurity advisory service based in Colorado.
What are the challenges faced in a cybersecurity engineer position?
Within security, the threat landscape can change day-to-day. This means the challenges that a cybersecurity engineer faces are constantly moving targets. Cybersecurity engineer interview questions will definitely touch on how you’ve been keeping abreast of the latest trends.
For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to push workers into remote work situations, leading to a staggering increase in attacks targeting a workplace unmoored from the protections provided within a physical office.
For those preparing for a cybersecurity engineering interview, knowing how trends like remote work are affecting the industry can demonstrate to recruiters and potential employers that they’ve mastered the security landscape. Even after the COVID-19 crisis finally passes, knowledge of cybersecurity trends is essential; these things will come up in the course of cybersecurity engineer interview questions.
“In the security space, the threat landscape is ever-changing—you need to demonstrate your ability to learn fast, apply new knowledge, and then move on to the next new challenge,” Bresien told Dice. “Going into a new job is really about being a real-life contributor, reflecting that image you created in the interview.”
What skills are needed in a cybersecurity engineer interview?
There are no specific cybersecurity certifications that an engineer absolutely needs during a job interview, although some experts agree that recruiters and employers tend to favor the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification from (ISC)².
Since many cybersecurity engineers typically have CISSP or an equivalent certification, candidates need to find other ways to differentiate themselves, said Steve Durbin, managing director of the Information Security Forum, a London-based authority on cybersecurity, information security and risk management.
“While technical knowhow is going to be needed, in most cases, this will be common across the candidates,” Durbin told Dice. “Differentiate yourself through displaying business and people skills. Emotional intelligence is in short supply in technical roles and is a good differentiator.”
What questions can come up during a cybersecurity engineer interview?
During the hiring process, a cybersecurity engineer interview questions will touch on a number of topics.
Security firm McAfee has published a list of over 200 questions that cybersecurity engineer job candidates could face during an interview. These can include basic knowledge questions such as: “What is information security and how is it achieved?” or “What are the core principles of information security?” Sound simple? Sure, but they can still trip you up if you’re not adequately prepared.
Cybersecurity engineer interview questions get a little more complex when it comes to a candidate’s specialization. For example, when the interview begins delving into specifics, a network security candidate might face questions such as: “What is a firewall? Provide an example of how a firewall can be bypassed by an outsider to access the corporate network.” Meanwhile, a question for an application security position could include: “Describe the last program or script that you wrote. What problem did it solve?”
In Bresien’s experience, it’s acceptable to not know all the answers to cybersecurity engineer interview questions. The important point, however, is to be honest with your new potential employer.
“I have been telling people for nearly two decades that if you have not been asked a question that you do not know the answer to, then the interviewer has failed at their job, or at least a piece of it, which is to find the edge of your experience,” Bresien said. “Be comfortable when that question comes and have a prepared but flexible response—something that points to a couple of times in your career when you’ve been presented with challenges and how you came up to speed quickly.”
How do you negotiate salary during a cybersecurity engineer job interview?
If you succeed in your job interview, your hiring manager will make you a job offer. Now comes a tricky part: how do you negotiate your salary? Fortunately, there are some simple techniques that can potentially boost your compensation package.
For example, don’t aim too low or high when offering up a salary number—and do your best to not reveal your current salary during the hiring process. Beyond that, leveraging higher compensation can hinge on your mastery of certain skills and certifications. Security-related certifications such as CISSP, CISA, CISM, and CompTIA Security+ can all assure hiring managers and recruiters that you have the knowledge necessary to protect their systems; knowledge of in-demand skills such as information security, network security, NIST cybersecurity framework, and vulnerability assessments are likewise invaluable.
During negotiations, break down how your cybersecurity skills and certifications make you unique and valuable—and thus worth premium compensation. Even if you don’t see a compensation bump, you could use your background as leverage to secure other perks and benefits, such as a more flexible schedule and/or equity.
What is the average cybersecurity engineer salary?
Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass), which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, pegs the median cybersecurity engineer salary at $96,933 per year.
According to Dice’s latest Tech Salary Report, the average salary for a cybersecurity engineer/architect is quite high: $145,512 per year, up 7.7 percent between 2021 and 2022. That puts it comfortably above other tech professions, including data scientist, network engineer, and others. (The average tech salary currently stands at $111,348, up 2.3 percent between 2021 and 2022). Given the high degree of specialization required for a cybersecurity engineer role, that high salary shouldn’t be shocking.