I’ve seen a lot of discussion of experience requirements and “entry-level” positions in the security industry lately. /r/netsecstudents and /r/asknetsec are full of threads discussing this topic, and I heard it being discussed at both BSidesLV and DEF CON this summer. The usual complaint is something along the lines of “all the positions want experience, so how am I supposed to get experience?” I’m going to take a stab at addressing this, and hope to at least provide some understanding.
A Word on Posted Job Requirements
First off, let’s take a look at posted job requirements. When you see a job listing on a career search site or on the company’s own site, those are usually written by someone in HR who took the requirements from the manager and is doing their best to fill those requirements with the best possible candidate. If they’re concerned that they might get too many applicants and want to narrow down the field, one technique they’ll use is to raise the bar somewhat. In other words, some experience requirements are artificial gatekeeping by HR. Apply anyway. Maybe you’ll have some unique experience that catches their eye, maybe they won’t get as many applicants as they thought, maybe everyone with 5 years experience will laugh at their salary offers.
Security as a Specialization
I know this will not be a popular opinion, but most security roles are not entry-level jobs. If you have come straight out of school, you are probably not qualified for a lot of security roles. This is because security work is essentially a specialization of your previous work. Much like a doctor may do general surgery before specializing in cardiothoracics, or an airplane mechanic may do basic repairs before rebuilding engines, understanding fundamentals is key to success in security.
If you are going to work in network security (firewalls, access control, etc.), you need to have a thorough understanding of the OSI model, VLANs, the concept of “Layer 3 switches”, and so much more. One of the best ways to get that understanding is to work as a network administrator beforehand.
As an application security engineer, you need an understanding of how software is built, application frameworks, OS APIs, and the software development life cycle. Understanding how the design document you read translates to actual software, or how the application stack in uses handles authentication/authorization are critical for security reviews.
If you want to work in digital forensics & incident response, you need to understand how the operating systems involve work, where the artifacts you’re pulling from come from, how to find additional artifacts, and many other things.
In penetration testing, you need familiarity with a variety of operating systems, as most networks are a heterogenous mixture, as well as basic concepts of networking and application security. A basic understanding of the controls involved in securing the systems is also important for effective penetration testing (how can you test security controls you don’t understand?).
The biggest problem in security is that there are so many unknowns. Worst, of course, are the unknown unknowns – the things you don’t know that you don’t know. Having experience in these areas reduces (but does not eliminate, of course) these unknown unknowns.
Software engineers, developers, network administrators, etc., all depend on abstractions across the layers of computing. Part of working in security is about understanding where those abstractions break down, and it’s critical that security practitioners understand what those abstractions are and how they interact. Experience working with those technologies helps the practitioner understand the abstractions.
Getting Security Experience
There are a number of roles that can help gain relevant work experience:
- IT Help Desk (Yes, it’s thankless, but it’s good exposure to a range of IT systems.)
- System administrator (obviously a lot of understanding of how systems interact, how operating systems work, shell experience, etc.)
- Network administrator (understand network ACLs, VLANs, network appliances)
All of this is not to say that formal work experience is the only way to gain relevant experience. There are many ways to develop technical experience. Fortunately, many of the relevant tools are open source or have community editions that are available.
I’ve written before about building a homelab for Offensive Security, but there’s many different approaches. There are online courses in this area:
Alternatively, you can take more of the self-taught approach with options like CTFs or HackTheBox.eu. There’s a number of different approaches.
Of course, if you’re still a student, there are internships to help you gain experience. I’ve now hosted (managed) 4 interns in security, and those have been a good way to gain experience and a better understanding of the industry. Some have worked out, some haven’t, but I’d like to think they’ve all learned something along the way.
If you don’t have much experience, find a way to work your lab or extracurricular studies into your resume. Place it under education, and list the things you’ve learned how to do. Don’t try to pretend that it’s industry experience, but show that you’re driven, that you’ve learned things, and that you can execute. In fact, having personal research/lab/etc., shows that you’re capable of getting things done on your own without individual supervision, which is a highly desirable trait.
Entry Level Positions in Security
Perhaps you really want to start off in security. There are positions, but they will be harder to find and might not be the position you think. Many of these positions involve very tool-specific or operational workflows and can be repetitive, but may offer a good learning and growth opportunity.
- Tier 1 SOC
- Some roles in a Managed Security Provider (MSP)
- Vulnerability Management Engineer (Mostly scanning/patching)
Look, I know it’s not what everyone wants to hear (especially those with little experience) but it is what I see in the current industry. Understanding how security fits into the bigger picture makes the most effective security practitioner, and that comes from experience. Obviously, industry experience will please the HR and recruiters, but showing the experience you do have (and building your experience) will help you get the opportunities you want.