Cybersecurity engineers have a straightforward mission: help protect their organization’s tech stack from internal and external threats. On a tactical level, that means they need to develop expertise in digital forensics, security policies, and network defense while collaborating with other stakeholders throughout an organization, from management to other tech professionals.
In order to become a cybersecurity engineer, you’ll need to learn how to identify vulnerabilities and attacks (such as unauthorized data access and proofing), conduct vulnerability assessments and penetration testing, and how to best implement secure network solutions. As you evolve into the cybersecurity engineer role, you’ll serve as the first line of defense between your organization and potential security breaches.
Let’s dig into how to become a cybersecurity engineer!
A Background in Networking, Computer Science
John Gallagher, vice president of Viakoo Labs at Viakoo, says a cybersecurity engineer will need a technical background in networking and computer science: “Increasingly, there are specialized cybersecurity degree programs—undergraduate and graduate—as well as bootcamp-style programs that add cybersecurity focus to broader technical degrees.”
Professional certifications and the study programs associated with them can help to build focused skills for cybersecurity, which include (among others):
- Specific industries are also promoting credentialing programs, such as the Security Industry Association’s Security Industry Cybersecurity Certification (SICC) program.
Gallagher explains specific languages and tools are evolving, so having a foundation in the basics (like C, C++, Python, and Java) is useful. “However, increasingly languages like Rust and Golang are being used by threat actors,” he adds. “Over time, threat actors are drawn to more esoteric languages if they offer advantages in stealth and low footprint.”
Michael Born, senior manager of application security at Coalfire, agrees that aspiring cybersecurity engineers should have proficiency in a scripting language, whether in Python, Bash, Batch, or PowerShell. “At some point in one’s career, there will be a need to automate some task,” he says. “Knowing a scripting language at the very least, will help with doing so. We’re at the point in our society that knowing a scripting or programming language well is an absolute must.”
Writing, Communications Skills are Key
As far as other skills, Born says it is very important that aspiring cybersecurity engineers understand the finer details of APA style of writing, how to effectively use third-person, active voice in technical documents, and demonstrate their ability to do so. After all, you need to convey complex information to other stakeholders (who may not have a tech or cybersecurity background) in a non-intimidating way.
“It seems there is so much focus on technical acumen that cybersecurity practitioners starting out are severely lacking in their ability to write technical documents,” he explains. “Documentation is a large part of what many cybersecurity practitioners do aside from technical tasks.”
Any aspiring cybersecurity engineer who can demonstrate technical proficiencies and at the same time operate effectively in a social setting with other people will set themselves far above the rest of the crowd. “’People skills’ or ‘soft skills’ are equally important if not more important out of all of these,” Born notes. “Far too often have I encountered really bright people with strong technical abilities only to find out they couldn’t hold an engaging conversation or effectively communicate when necessary.”
Career Paths to Cybersecurity Engineering
The path into a cybersecurity engineer role is rarely ever along a single track. For example, there are people who graduate college with a degree that start as SOC analysts and move up from there. Others are largely self-taught, migrating into cybersecurity after stints in other technology jobs.
“The majority of successful cybersecurity engineers I've worked with either started off in IT and transitioned into their cybersecurity engineering role, worked as a developer before moving into an application security focused cybersecurity engineer role, or took some other non-traditional path to get there,” Born says.
There are several other career fields that synergize well with cybersecurity careers. “Any career that involves critical thinking, deep problem solving, some sort of technology stack, and soft skills can easily transition into a cybersecurity engineering role provided the personality traits are there,” Born adds.
When it comes to building hands-on experience and following a career path, Gallagher points out an IT auditor typically has a good perspective on the overall landscape, giving a good point to focus further on their career path. ”Getting dirty with technology is both good from a skill building perspective, and to build deeper insights into how malicious hackers think and operate,” he says.
He recommends setting up a home cybersecurity lab and seeing for yourself how a threat actor looks at an organization for cyber-weaknesses. “Become familiar with tools like Nmap, Wireshark, or Nessus that can reveal your digital infrastructure from a hacker's perspective,” he adds.
Stay Current with Evolving Threats
Gallagher suggests following cybersecurity news as a good starting point for staying updated on the latest developments, and then digging into what is behind it, such as why DDoS attacks are setting new records for volume and velocity practically every week.
“Also check out key conferences like RSA and Black Hat, and see what is new on those agendas,” he says. “Recent additions include generative A.I., open-source threats, application-based discovery, and IoT vulnerabilities.”
Born's advice is to consume as much information as early in your career as possible and start to gradually generate an area or two of focus going forward. “Vendor security statements, CVEs, blog posts, hacking forums, and other resources often provide enough detail to stay up to date in your given field of cybersecurity engineering,” he says. “As a defender, understanding offensive focused attack techniques will help you defend better or produce out of the box solutions to difficult problems.”
As an offensive-focused cybersecurity engineer, knowing the techniques and configurations used by defenders and attackers will help you get creative with how to test an environment, ultimately leading to a valuable assessment.
“Staying up-to-date on every aspect of cybersecurity is impossible but staying up to date on a focused subset of topics will definitely help one succeed in their chosen cybersecurity field,” Born says.