Is Ethical Hacking Hard? (Answered for Beginners in 2024)

Is Ethical Hacking Hard?

A career in ethical hacking can be fun, exhilarating, and financially rewarding. However, people looking to enter the industry often don’t stop to ask if ethical hacking is hard, what challenges they will encounter, and how they can overcome them.

This article will answer all of those questions. It explores how long it’ll take to become an ethical hacker, what you need to learn, and the importance of continuous learning to stay on track throughout your career.

Then, we’ll explore common challenges you’ll face during your career and provide solutions to help you overcome them.

So, is ethical hacking hard? Let’s dive in and answer.

Understanding Ethical Hacking

Ethical hacking, or penetration testing, involves identifying and exploiting security vulnerabilities in computer systems, applications, and networks.

The owner of these assets gives you permission to do this so you can identify weaknesses in their environment that need to be bolstered to defend against a real attack.

The difference between malicious hacking and ethical hacking is that an ethical hacker has the permission of the asset owner and aims to improve the security of their client, while a malicious hacker does not have permission and often looks to profit illegally by breaking into computer systems.

Different types of hacker

An ethical hacker will use the same tools, hacking techniques, and methodology as a real attacker to attack systems and find ways to better defend them.

Not all ethical hacking is the same. Depending on your skills, interests, and experience, you can specialize in different roles and responsibilities.

Roles and Responsibilities

Most people will begin their ethical hacking career as junior penetration testers once they’ve learned about the fundamentals of cyber security and have spent some time in an entry-level cyber security role.

A junior penetration tester will be responsible for some less advanced testing and shadow a senior penetration tester.

After gaining experience in this role and developing your skillset, you can specialize in a specific area of ethical hacking that aligns with your interests.

For instance, if you enjoy playing with web technologies, you might choose to become a web application pentester, whereas if you want to focus on exploiting people rather than technology, social engineering might be for you.

Here are some of the most common penetration testing career options. Read our Penetration Tester Career Path: Key Steps and Opportunities article to learn more.

10 Penetration Tester Career Positions

Career paths are great, but how long does it actually take to get a job as an ethical hacker? Let’s take a look.

Is Ethical Hacking Hard to Learn? And How Long Does It Take?

Ethical hacking is not an entry-level IT position.

It requires you to learn IT, networking, and cyber security fundamentals before you can even begin to learn the basics of ethical hacking.

This prerequisite knowledge means that landing a role as an ethical hacker takes time. How long will vary depending on your experience, existing skill set, and determination to stick with it. Realistically, this means the following:

  • With experience, learning ethical hacking prerequisite knowledge will take three to four months (200 to 400 hours). Another 100 to 200 hours of real-world practice—such as hacking in dedicated training labs—will solidify those skills.
  • Without experience, it can take up to 11 or 12 months to learn the prerequisite IT, networking, and cyber security knowledge—plus the time required for the ethical hacking content.

During your journey, you may also need to acquire additional technical skills such as specific tools like Wireshark, programming or scripting languages like Python, or understanding concepts like Windows Active Directory (AD). These will add 100 to 200 hours to your learning journey.

It’s also important to remember that landing a cyber security job is not just about technical skills.

While it might only take a few months to learn the skills or gain an entry-level penetration testing certification, you also need to gain experience, meet job-specific requirements, acquire soft skills, and learn how to apply and interview for jobs.

For a complete guide on how long it takes to become an ethical hacker, click here.

Although these time horizons may sound daunting, giving yourself a realistic timeframe to gain competency and set achievable expectations is important.

To boost your entry into cyber, we created the StationX Accelerator Program. This program fast-tracks your career with high-quality courses, virtual labs, experienced mentors, and a vibrant community that will keep you motivated and accountable.

So now you know how long it will take to become an ethical hacker. How do you actually do it?

How Do I Learn Ethical Hacking?

To become an ethical hacker, you must progress through several learning stages, as shown in the roadmap overview below.

penetration tester roadmap

At stages 1on and 2, you need to learn the essentials of IT and networking to build a strong cyber security foundation. Essential skills include:

  • Basic operating system administration (Windows and Linux) and virtualization
  • Troubleshooting common IT issues
  • Understanding PC components
  • The ability to communicate with a non-technical audience through documentation and reports
  • TCP/IP and the OSI Reference Model
  • Networking topology
  • Routing and switching
  • Network protocols and ports

At these levels, you may be pursuing certifications like CompTIA A+, Network+, or CCNA.

Once you learn the fundamentals, you can move onto Stage 3, where you learn about general cyber security topics, such as vulnerabilities, exploits, common defenses, risk management, and much more. Common certifications to pursue at this stage include Security+, SSCP, or CEH.

Here, you’ll choose a cyber security domain to focus on and learn more about, like ethical hacking.

With the foundations laid, developing ethical hacking skills becomes much easier. Beginner hacking courses and practice labs are a good way to begin preparing for Stage 4 certifications like OSCP.

This is just an overview of what you must do to become a penetration tester. Read How to Become a Penetration Tester for a comprehensive guide.

Learning hacking methods may land you a job as a junior ethical hacker, but to have a successful career, you must also become proficient in some key industry tools.

What Hacking Tools Do I Need to Learn?

Once you learn the basics of ethical hacking, you need to master the tools of the trade. There are countless hacking tools, from free and open-source to fully-fledged commercial Command and Control (C2) frameworks. Here are a few you’ll likely encounter.

Key tools to learn:

  • Burp Suite: A web application penetration testing tool suite that allows you to intercept and manipulate web traffic to find vulnerabilities in web apps.
  • Nmap: A network scanning tool for finding network-attached machines, detecting open ports, and identifying vulnerabilities to exploit.
  • Metasploit: A penetration testing framework for identifying vulnerabilities, executing exploits, and performing post-exploitation tasks, such as stealing credentials, exfiltrating data, and pivoting.
  • Bloodhound: A Windows Active Directory reconnaissance tool that shows potential attack paths and relationships between Active Directory components, allowing you to identify possible weaknesses.
  • Mimikatz: An open-source hacking tool for extracting credential information from compromised machines and performing attacks like Kerberoasting, pass the hash, and more.

In addition to these common tools, you’ll also need to learn more specialist tools based on the area of ethical hacking you choose to pursue.

For example, if you want to become a red teamer, you’ll want to focus on C2 frameworks like PowerShell Empire, whereas if you’re more interested in social engineering or OSINT, Maltego is a great choice.

Regardless of your specialty, ethical hacking tools and techniques change frequently. This means you must be willing to continuously learn new things to succeed in this profession, whether through training courses, research, or on-the-job learning.

This is one of the challenges you’ll face as an ethical hacker, among several others we’ll now explore.

Check out the Top 20 Network Penetration Testing Tools to discover what tools you need to learn for your ethical hacking specialty.

On the Job: Is Ethical Hacking Hard?

Ethical hacking isn’t easy. It requires grit and determination to get into the industry and even more to have a successful career. Here are some of the main challenges you’ll likely face on the job and some solutions to overcome them.

1. Keeping Up-To-Date

Ethical hacking is an ever-evolving field. New tools, tactics, and techniques emerge regularly that you must learn and test client systems against.

The constant pressure of staying ahead of new vulnerabilities and attack methodologies can be taxing, especially if you’re not used to it.

Solution

Embrace the learning. If you choose a career in ethical hacking, you must accept that things will change, and you need to keep up.

Don’t see this as a negative or chore. Instead, see it as an opportunity to improve your craft, advance your career, and explore the amazing technological feats being accomplished.

To make learning less overwhelming, you can systematize it and add structure. One place to start is following the Second Brain method, which involves creating a system for capturing inputs, scheduling time for studying what you capture and archiving this information for later use.

If time is a struggle, just be more selective about what you consume and learn about.

2. Ethical Dilemmas and Maintaining Integrity

Ethical hacking may seem as simple as getting a client’s permission and running several penetration tools against some systems.

However, over the course of your career, you’ll encounter situations that raise ethical dilemmas and question your integrity.

Here are several examples of scenarios that may arise:

  • You are required to perform a phishing simulation against a client. Should you use a family emergency as a pretext for employees to click on a phishing link?
  • You discover sensitive information that could offer great financial rewards during a penetration test. Do you use this information for profit or report it?
  • You are tasked with performing a physical penetration test against a company. Is breaking company and private equipment to gain access to a restricted area as collateral damage okay?
  • During a social engineering engagement, you must trick vulnerable people into revealing sensitive information that allows you to access company assets. Is it ethical to trick them?
  • During a test, you discover evidence of unethical or illegal activities on the client’s system. Do you keep it confidential or report it to the authorities?

Solution

Navigating ethical dilemmas and maintaining your integrity when these situations arise can be difficult. Here are some guidelines you can follow to ensure that you act ethically and responsibly:

  • Follow an ethical framework that you feel comfortable with, is agreed upon by your client, and minimizes any potential collateral damage. This could state that certain topics are off-limits (e.g., family emergencies) to minimize the distress on employees.
  • Communicate with the client if you’re unsure of the ethical implications of your hacking. Before any engagement, you should be clear with the client about what work you’ll perform and gain their permission. This includes social engineering activities that may impact employees.
  • Respect your client and their employees and remember that the purpose of your testing is not to humiliate or embarrass them or their employees. You have a moral and legal responsibility to stick to the testing scope, report any vulnerability found, and help the client improve their cyber security posture.
  • Act responsibly and in line with the safety and well-being of the client, their employees, and corporate systems in relation to your testing. Ensure that you take the necessary precautions to avoid collateral damage and undue stress, aligning with your company’s code of ethics.

Check out this great video lecture for more tips on navigating ethical dilemmas during penetration testing.

Ethical ethical hacking? Ethical Dilemmas and Dimensions in Penetration Testing

3. High Pressure and Stakes

As an ethical hacker, you’re under a lot of pressure. A business relies on you to identify all the ways a real hacker could attack its systems and provide a comprehensive security assessment of how to defend against them.

It also expects you to complete this assessment without damaging its systems or causing any downtime for its customers. Given limited time and resources, these two things are not always possible.

Solution

Although providing a client with guarantees is impossible, you can use two techniques to get as close as possible.

Firstly, you can limit the scope of your testing. You can just test one web application, a handful of systems, or just the external components of the client’s overall IT infrastructure.

This allows you to be more thorough in your testing given limited time, reduce the stakes, and ensure you are more confident in your assessments.  

Secondly, test your hacking tools and exploits before running them against client systems. Building your own virtual hacking lab is a fantastic way to test your tools or exploit code in a safe environment and see if they work as expected.

This will give you more confidence and relieve some of the pressure of running tools against live systems.

4. Complex Problem Solving

Ethical hacking requires solving complex problems. You must think outside the box, develop new solutions, and remain persistent when facing adversity. These qualities will get you into the industry and are ones you must maintain to grow in your career.

As part of solving complex problems and security flaws, you’ll also be expected to collaborate with others and effectively communicate your ideas, findings, and solutions with both technical and non-technical people.

This can be difficult for many technical-focused ethical hackers who lack the soft skills required to be an effective team member.

Solution

Getting better at solving complex problems takes practice. You can do this in your virtual lab or through online cyber security labs. These platforms offer a gamified environment where you can practice your hacking skills in a safe and fun environment.

Hands-on practice is crucial for learning the real-world skills required to succeed in a technical cyber security role.

Virtual labs are the ideal place for you to experiment, test new hacking techniques, and make mistakes without fear of consequences. Regularly challenging yourself in these labs will improve your skills and give you practical experience.

"Hacking is commonly misconceived as a talent reserved for geniuses, perceived almost as an innate ability one must be born with. However, the truth is much more accessible: hacking is a skill like any other, capable of being learned and honed through proper training and discipline. Just as anyone can learn to write, anyone can learn to hack with dedication and practice." -Zaid Al-Quraishi, Ethical Hacker, Computer Scientist, and Instructor

5. Career Progression and Specialization

Many think entering the industry is the hardest part of becoming an ethical hacker. In reality, this is just the starting point.

Once you land your first role, you must consider how to progress your career and what ethical hacking domain you’ll specialize in. This is often a daunting experience full of uncertainty.

Solution

Career progression and choosing an ethical hacking specialization are difficult challenges for you to solve alone. This is why we created the StationX Accelerator Program.

The program offers over 1,000 courses and virtual labs covering all the technical training you need to advance your skills. But there’s even more than that.

At StationX, we recognize that having a successful career in cyber requires professional mentorship, a personalized roadmap, and a vibrant community that keeps you accountable throughout your journey, which is why we include these key components.

You’ll have access to high-quality mentors who’ll give you tailored advice and guidance whenever you need it, a custom study roadmap to help you enter the field or progress in your career, and access to mastermind groups that’ll motivate you to stay on track and push your career forward.

6.Work-Life Balance

A major challenge we all face is maintaining a good work-life balance.

Ethical hackers are no exception. You may be expected to work odd hours to avoid interfering with a client’s customers or long hours to meet deadlines, and you’ll definitely need to devote time to studying and improving your craft.

These time constraints may spill over into your time with family and friends outside of work. Unfortunately, overcoming these pressures is challenging because many are outside of your control.

Solution

Although it can be difficult to keep up with your professional commitments at times, here are several tips that can help you maintain a work life balance over the long run:

  • Set boundaries: Create clear boundaries that separate your work from personal life. These will help you avoid overworking and stop work tasks from creeping into other areas of your life (e.g., hard cut-off time from work).
  • Prioritize tasks: Complete the most important tasks first. This will prevent work tasks from piling up and extending your work day.
  • Practice time management: Build good time management habits in your workday, such as organizing your tasks effectively and using productivity tools to stay on track. This will ensure you are efficient with your work time.
  • Delegate and outsource: If you’re really swamped at work, consider delegating or outsourcing non-essential or time-consuming tasks to lighten your work. This will let you focus on what is important.
  • Establish healthy routines: Add daily routines that give your day balance and structure. These can be eating windows, regular breaks to reset and refocus, or leisure activities that promote a healthy lifestyle. These routines will give you a sense of stability and control.

Conclusion: Is Ethical Hacking Hard?

So, is ethical hacking hard? Yes, it is.

An ethical hacker’s career is fast-paced, high-stakes, and all-consuming in terms of time and cognitive demand.

You’re expected to be perfect, stay up-to-date with the latest research, and do it all with a limited time scale and resources. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t become one.

Despite the challenges, ethical hacking is an incredibly rewarding career that provides you the opportunity to do impactful work and receive high financial compensation. It’s a career where there’s never a dull moment, and you’re continuously learning, growing, and making a real difference.

Also, remember that these challenges will occur throughout your career, not all at once, and plenty of resources are available to help you navigate them.

One of these is the StationX Accelerator Program, which includes courses that give practical advice when you need it most.

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  • Adam Goss

    Adam is a seasoned cyber security professional with extensive experience in cyber threat intelligence and threat hunting. He enjoys learning new tools and technologies, and holds numerous industry qualifications on both the red and blue sides. Adam aims to share the unique insights he has gained from his experiences through his blog articles. You can find Adam on LinkedIn or check out his other projects on LinkTree.

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