The best ethical hacking courses and certifications

Becoming a certified ethical hacker, or penetration tester, is a popular goal among information security professionals. Here are your best options for reaching it.

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Professional penetration testing, also known as ethical hacking, is among the most exciting IT jobs any person can be involved in. You are literally getting paid to keep up with the latest technology and get to  “break in” to computers without the threat of being arrested. There’s almost no downside. As long as you do a competent job, the person who hired you will be happy with the outcome of your work. If you find a way to break into their resources, they get a chance to close the holes before the bad guys find them. If you fail to break into the customer’s computers…well, that makes them even happier because they get to claim defense superiority. It’s the only job I know of that when you “fail” you still make everyone happy. Win-win!

I did professional penetration testing for over 10 years and it remains the most favorite job I ever did. You not only get to do something fun, but pen testers often are seen with an aura of extra coolness that comes from everyone knowing they could break into almost any computer at will. Although now long turned legit, the world’s former most notorious uber hacker, Kevin Mitnick, told me that he gets the exact same emotional thrill out of being paid to legally break into places as he did for all those years of illegal hacking. Mitnick said, the only difference “is the report writing.”

Most professional penetration testers become “pen testers” one of two ways. Either they learn hacking skills on their own or they take formal education classes. Many, like me, did both. Although sometimes mocked by self-learners, ethical hacking classes and certifications are often the gateway to a good paying job as a full-time penetration tester. 

Today’s IT security education curriculum is full of courses and certifications that teach someone how to be an ethical hacker. For most of the certification exams you can self-study and bring your own experience to the testing center or take an approved education course. While you don’t need an ethical hacking certification to get employed as professional penetration tester, it can’t hurt.

As CBT Nuggets trainer, Keith Barker said, “I think the opportunity to have certified ethical “anything” on your resume can only be a good thing, but it’s more of an entry way into more study. Plus, if companies see that you are certified in ethical hacking, they know you have seen and agreed to a particular code of ethics. If an employer is looking at resumes and they see someone who has an ethical hacking certification and someone that didn't, it’s got to help.”

Even though they teach the same skill every ethical hacking course and certification is different. Here are the things you'll want to research and question when deciding to take an ethical hacking course or cert:

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