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A Short Roadmap to Becoming a White Hat Hacker

Photo by Jefferson Santos. on Unsplash

Given how increasingly technological our lives have become, it’s only natural that everyone is asking for more cybersecurity. That’s especially true if you consider how we are already entering the Internet of Things (IoT) era, where everything around us will be connected to interact with one another. On the positive side, this will let us lead more comfortable lives and will open the door for new interaction opportunities.

On the negative side, though, we’ll be more vulnerable to attacks as entry points multiply. In such a world, the typical idea of cybersecurity won’t hold up anymore. Though we’d love to believe that the services of a traditional QA team would be enough, we all know that’s not true. That’s why there’s a rising interest in the services of bad-actors-turned-good – white hat hackers.

What Are White Hat Hackers?

Also known as “ethical hackers”, they are hackers that use their abilities to do good and help companies and organizations strengthen their security systems by spotting vulnerabilities in them. They do so by using the same techniques harmful hackers use to break into all kinds of systems. The idea of white hat hackers is to replicate how bad actors work so they can quickly identify the weakest points in any given software, platform, network, etc.

For that, white hat hackers use penetration testing techniques in well-coordinated attacks to see how well an organization’s IT security holds up against them. After the series of attacks is done, the IT team uses the results to fix vulnerabilities, lowering the overall risk of a breach for any given system.

Thus, white hat hackers can be very beneficial allies since, along with the QA staffers, they can assess how good the protection of a company actually is. That’s why many companies are looking for these professionals – and why anyone interested in working as one should follow this roadmap.

1. Adjusting The Mindset

An aspiring white hat hacker is probably motivated by the same thing as a regular hacker: the excitement you can get out of breaking into someone else’s system. Of course, a normal hacker will do so just to please themselves, doing harm along the way, and maybe even profiting from the whole thing. A white hat hacker, though, uses their curiosity to get that excitement but providing something in return.

So, anyone trying to be a white hatter surely needs to adjust their mindset to offer their abilities for a good cause. Picking the ethical route surely has to do with personality traits and particular contexts. However, when compared with plain hacking, ethical hackers can be sure that they’ll be quenching their thirst for breaking systems while getting (handsomely) paid and providing something in return. It’s a win-win scenario for everyone involved!

2. Developing Relevant Skills

Even for people with years of experience, developing skills is a must to become an ethical hacker. That’s because it takes more than just coding abilities to be a successful white hatter. Of course, the first thing required to be one is programming skills, especially around certain topics. Ideally, the aspiring ethical hacker needs to have some sort of background in quality assurance testing, learn to program in more than just one language (especially in C), as well as grasp key technologies and concepts about UNIX, cryptography, and networking. 

Additionally, there are other softer skills that can help in this path. Developing a passion for problem-solving is key, as well as having strong communication abilities to report the vulnerabilities. Organizational skills and being resistant to pressure are also valuable traits. Unfortunately, there’s no established criteria on what’s needed to become a white hat hacker. All of the above helps but the more knowledge the candidate has, the better. 

3. Getting a Certification

While by no means a requirement, getting a security-related IT certification can certainly broaden their knowledge and help aspiring ethical hackers take their first steps. In the field, there’s no better recommendation than to get the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification from the EC-Council. The Council is probably the most widely known certifier of online cyber security degree programs, so a credential from them can open various doors, professionally speaking.

The EC-Council is probably the best place for candidates that haven’t had prior work experience, as they offer five-day CEH training classes to prepare them for the certification. In them, the students learn about Windows and Linux, get familiar with TCP/IP, and delve into virtualization techniques. The Council also offers the possibility to self-study and pass the obligatory exam.

4. Experimenting And Getting Experience

Though the training is never completed (more on that below), any aspiring white hat hacker will reach a point where they’ll need to see how they’ll perform in a real-world situation. That’s why it’s important to start experimenting when some of the skills above are at an advanced level. How can ethical hackers experiment? While they can do so on their own, it’s not ideal. Sure, they can try to break a program or a LAN built by a friend but chances are that they aren’t up to par with what they’ll find in a real case scenario. 

The best thing is to go to a hackathon. Being surrounded by like-minded people in a timed contest to become the best can be a great environment to learn the secrets of the trade. What’s more – even if they don’t win, white hat hackers will surely refine their skills and learn new tricks from more advanced attendees. 

5. Keeping the Learning Process Going

Even if the aspiring white hat hacker wins a hackathon and gets a job in a good company, they shouldn’t stop learning. Since new technologies and techniques are being developed every day, chances are that anyone that stops actively learning will be left behind sooner rather than later. That’s oh-so-true in a world where hackers are now using artificial intelligence algorithms to power their attacks and where the Internet of Things is becoming larger by the minute.

Besides, there are always aspects that could have been neglected that are worth reviewing. The most important one? The physical side of penetration testing. Sure, we are all accustomed to digital software testing but there will be times in which white hat hackers will have to look for vulnerabilities on site. Physical access controls, security equipment, and even security personnel are sometimes included in hacking attacks, so knowing how to test them is relevant as well.

The Bottom Line

Today’s world desperately needs more security professionals to help guard the troves of data it generates on a daily basis. Software and web testing aren’t enough anymore. Traditional techniques and tools have proven to be unsuccessful. In such a context, the need for professionals like the white hat hackers is more evident than ever.

Ethical hackers with enough experience and certifications shouldn’t have problems finding a job in the corporate world. That’s because their curiosity, their unmatched ability to find vulnerabilities, and their capacity to think like malicious agents are in high demand. Companies need their talent if they are to secure their digital environments. In fact, the whole society needs them because, as we get more and more digital, everyone will be exposed at one point or the other. 

About the author


Malcom Ridgers

Malcom is a tech expert specializing in the software outsourcing industry. He has access to the latest market news and has a keen eye for innovation and what's next for technology businesses.