How to become a cyber security engineer

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What is a cyber security engineer?

Cyber security engineers play a vital role in protecting computer and networking systems from potential hackers and cyber attacks. They design security infrastructure, identify potential threats and work to fix vulnerabilities to protect the systems.

Technology evolves rapidly, and as security gaps in technology have become more sophisticated, demand for information security occupations has increased, too. This guide outlines the necessary education, certifications and skills to become a successful cyber security engineer (as well as how much they may be able to earn).

Types of cyber security engineers

Cyber security is a broad topic, so there are plenty of more specialized opportunities within the field. Here are some of the different types of cyber security engineers who focus on specific elements of cyber security:

Application Security Engineer: These engineers identify and address security weaknesses in applications that a business develops or uses. They implement controls, including app authentication, encryption, and authorization settings, test software, set up firewalls and scan/test applications.

Network Security Engineer: Network security engineers are responsible for maintaining the safety of a business' organizational network. They monitor the network for breaches, identify vulnerabilities and develop solutions and safeguards to protect the network against attacks.

Cloud Security Engineer: A cloud security engineer is responsible for defending a business against attacks within the cloud. The engineer is responsible for configuring the network security, building applications, identifying and addressing vulnerabilities and maintaining a secure cloud infrastructure.

According to a study by (ISC)², a nonprofit of cybersecurity professionals, the global cyber security workforce consists of approximately 4.7 million professionals, which is an all-time high. However, the study also revealed that 3.4 million more cybersecurity professionals are needed to meet the increased demand and effectively protect assets. Since businesses are increasingly relying on networks, the cloud and applications, there is significant demand for all of these types of engineers.

Cyber threats faced by information security engineers

Cyber security engineers need to be prepared to defend a business against multiple types of cyber threats. Rich Selvidge, President of SecureTrust, explains that malware, phishing, DDoS attacks, data breaches, insider threats and targeted attacks by cybercriminals are some of the most common types of threats.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are rapidly growing in popularity, but also pose new threats including unauthorized actions, data manipulation and potential vulnerabilities from bad AI outputs.

The cyber security landscape also faces emerging threats and trends. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are rapidly growing in popularity, but also pose new threats including unauthorized actions, data manipulation and potential vulnerabilities from bad AI outputs.

The increased reliance on cloud data storage makes the cloud an attractive target for hackers. Selvidge notes that IoT botnets, cloud misconfigurations and vulnerabilities in new technologies are also concerns, and privacy regulations like GDPR and CCPA impact security strategies.

What does a cyber security engineer do?

Cyber security engineers work closely with other IT professionals to ensure comprehensive security solutions. They may collaborate with IT teams on new software and app development, network improvements, and cloud-based systems implementation and monitoring, ensuring that these systems are as secure as possible. Additionally, engineers often collaborate across multiple departments, consulting with department supervisors about technology and security needs. Engineers may report to upper-level management and stakeholders, and may create reports and recommendations for management to review and approve.

Typical job duties

During the course of a day, cyber security engineers may have multiple job duties and responsibilities:

Design and implement security measures:
A cyber security engineer is responsible for designing and implementing security measures to help prevent breaches and prevent problems before they occur. Depending on the engineer's role, they might be responsible for an organization's network, applications, cloud storage or all of those elements.
Perform risk assessments:
Regularly performing risk assessments and penetration testing allows a cyber security engineer to continuously evaluate and monitor the security measures that they have implemented. That testing helps an engineer to evaluate a system's overall security before breach or problem has occurred, so if the engineer finds weaknesses, they can take steps to fix those issues and keep the organization's system and data well-protected.
Troubleshoot problems:
If a cyber security engineer identifies vulnerabilities or security issues, they need to take the appropriate steps to troubleshoot those issues. That might involve identifying several remedies, proposing those solutions or identifying the best solution, and implementing a fix to address the vulnerability.
Conduct security audits:
Cyber security engineers may also perform security audits, during which they conduct a thorough assessment of an organization's information systems, records and activities. During the audit, the engineer will look for appropriate system controls and evaluate the security policy and procedures. Based on the audit's results, the engineer will make recommendations for improvements to heighten the organization's security, and once approved, may implement those improvements.
Respond to security breaches:
If security breaches do occur, a cyber security engineer needs to promptly identify and respond to the breaches. The engineer will take steps to immediately secure the company's data, then evaluate the extent of the breach. They will work to identify why the breach occurred and implement protections to prevent future breaches.

During their work, cyber security engineers also need to be aware of the many ethical and legal considerations involved in cyber security engineering. According to Future of Tech, a few of the unique ethical issues that cyber security engineers face include:  

How to appropriately and sensitively handle sensitive personal, private or proprietary information, and how to keep that information confidential.

How to implement security measures to protect the privacy of others, such as when a company collects personal data about clients and then becomes responsible for protecting the data.

Additionally, cyber security engineers need to ensure that their organization stays in compliance with regulations like GDPR and CCPA. According to Securiti, these regulations help to ensure data privacy and protection, and they instituted strict standards such as requiring businesses to inform users when their data is being collected and requiring businesses to haw a lawful basis for processing customer data. Cyber security engineers need to consider compliance and work with Data Protection Officers to implement applicable regulations when designing processes and installing appropriate security protections.

Education and training

There are several different educational and training paths that you might take to become a cyber security engineer.

Associate degrees

An associate degree in cyber security provides you with knowledge about basic cyber security issues, computer programming languages and ethics in cyber security. You can complete an associate degree in just two years, and earning your associate degree requires less of a financial investment than longer degree programs. Keep in mind that an associate degree may qualify you for an entry-level position, but you will likely need additional education if you want to pursue more advanced career opportunities.

Bachelor's degrees

It's fairly common for employers to look for a security engineer who has at least a bachelor's degree in cyber security or computer science. While earning your bachelor's degree, you will learn more detailed information and skills surrounding data analysis, computer programming, risk management, software development, and computing systems. Earning your bachelor's degree will take an average of four years, and you may also have the opportunity to complete internships for hands-on experience. A bachelor's degree program does require a larger financial and time investment than an associate degree.

Master's degrees

If you plan to pursue upper-level jobs, such as in cyber security management, then you may want to complete a master's degree in cyber security, digital forensics, computing systems or a related field. A master's degree provides a more detailed and advanced education in cyber security concepts. This career path takes the most time to complete, but you may be able to secure a cyber security position while you are completing your master's degree.

Don't forget professional certification

There are also several certifications for cyber security engineers that you can pursue with or without a higher education. According to Business News Daily, certifications can help you to prove your skills to potential employers, and they can cost from $150 to approximately $2,500. If you want to increase your competitiveness as a job candidate, you might consider earning one or more of these common cyber security certifications:

ISACA Cybersecurity Fundamentals certification:
An entry-level certification that focuses on threat landscape, information security fundamentals, securing access and security operations and response. If you're an ISACA member, this exam costs $150. It costs $199 for nonmembers, but it doesn't expire or require any recertification.
CompTIA Security+ certification:
An entry-level certification that meets the U.S. Department of Defense Directive 8570.01-M requirements, making it an appealing choice if you plan to work in IT security in the federal government. It covers topics like network security, cryptography and risk management principles. The exam costs $392 to take.
(ISC)² Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification:
A widely known certification that demonstrates that you have the skills needed to work as a security analyst, network security engineer or security administrator, and includes questions on topics like risk identification, access controls, network and communications security and systems and application security. The exam costs $2,490 to take, and the (ISC)² offers multiple training courses and study resources to help you prepare.

Skills for cyber security engineers

Certain technical and soft skills are essential for a successful career as a cyber security engineer:

  • Risk assessment skills: A cyber security engineer needs to be talented in performing cyber security risk assessments to identify cyber threats, mitigate risk and help organization stakeholders to make well-informed decisions.
  • Networking skills: To protect networks, a cyber security engineer needs to have an understanding of wired and wireless networks and their vulnerabilities.
  • Programming: An engineer should have a strong programming background, including a knowledge of languages like Java, JavaScript, Python, PHP and SQL. Understanding of these coding languages can help an engineer identify program vulnerabilities. 
  • Intrusion monitoring and detection: A cyber security engineer needs to be able to effectively monitor networks to quickly spot and respond to intrusions or security violations.
  • Attention to detail: A keen eye for detail is very helpful in this profession, and it can help to keep a cyber security engineer from overlooking an important issue.
  • Critical thinking: Cyber security engineers need to be able to think critically, including asking thoughtful questions, evaluating data and identifying and assessing solutions.
  • Communication skills: Written and verbal communication skills are important in most cyber security roles. Most importantly, an engineer needs to not only be able to communicate with IT professionals, but to also explain complex and technical topics to staff members who don't have an IT background.
  • Collaboration talents: An engineer needs to be able to work with an IT team and to collaborate with other organization members, including supervisors and potentially public relations professionals.

While it's helpful to naturally have some of these soft skills, you can develop many of these soft and technical skills through education, training and on-the-job experience. "Internships and work experience are extremely valuable when starting out as a cybersecurity engineer," says Selvidge. "These provide hands-on experience and allow you to apply classroom knowledge."

Perhaps most importantly, cyber security engineers need to continue to learn about new industry advancements. "Ongoing training is essential, as threats and technologies continuously evolve," Selvidge says. "Attending security conferences, taking new courses and participating in capture the flag competitions help you to stay current." Capture the flag competitions challenge teams of individuals to find text strings hidden in vulnerable websites or software, honing their skills. Pursuing this and other continuing education and professional development opportunities will help an engineer to stay aware of new threats, new protections and new best practices, helping them to better protect their organizations.

Tools and technologies

Cyber security engineers use several common tools and technologies to perform their work:

Firewalls function as a barrier between an internal network and the public internet. They monitor and filter network traffic and can be customized with an organization's security policies to ensure maximum protection.

Vulnerability scanners automatically scan an organization's networks, hardware, software and systems. Thes scanners look for potential risks and vulnerabilities, like misconfigurations, patching issues and risky ports.

Intrusion detection systems (IDS) and intrusion prevention systems (IPS) monitor a network constantly. They help to identify potential security incidents, stop the incidents and record information about each incident that an engineer can then review and address.

Penetration testing tools simulate cyberattacks in an attempt to breach an organization's digital systems. These tools help to identify and test vulnerabilities so that an engineer can address those vulnerabilities before an attack occurs.

Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) tools analyze applications and network hardware to provide real-time security alerts, allowing an engineer to promptly implement threat remediation.

What is the median salary of a cybersecurity engineer?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for cyber security engineers (called information security analysts by the BLS) is $112,000. Income can vary depending on industry, too. Engineers in the information industry earned a median wage of $165,110, while those in scientific research and development earned $136,810. Engineers in computer systems design earned $122,430.

The BLS projects that employment of cyber security engineers should grow by 31.5% through 2032. Approximately 19,500 openings are projected to become available each year, which is much faster growth than what is average across all occupations. That growth is due to increasing demand for security engineers, which is prompted by the growth of cyber attacks and an increased focus on cyber security. The growth in digital health services also means increased data security risks and a growing need for cyber security engineers.

Cybersecurity engineer salary

To launch a cyber security engineering career, focus on developing a strong resume and acquiring firsthand experience. Internships can be valuable in gaining experience and developing a professional network, and they may help you to find your first job opportunity. Cyber security jobs are frequently posted on online job boards, and your college professors may also know of opportunities. "Joining industry organizations and local security meetups helps to build connections and grow professionally," says Selvidge. "Mentorship opportunities can also provide guidance for aspiring cybersecurity engineers."

Information Security Analysts

National data

Median Salary: $112,000

Projected job growth: 31.5%

10th Percentile: $66,010

25th Percentile: $85,270

75th Percentile: $141,130

90th Percentile: $174,540

Projected job growth: 31.5%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $105,180 $53,680 $165,980
Alaska $93,960 $68,220 $141,470
Arizona $106,360 $60,110 $158,300
Arkansas $83,370 $47,300 $135,280
California $134,830 $72,590 $203,110
Colorado $109,610 $64,240 $172,420
Connecticut $119,270 $84,190 $162,960
Delaware $127,670 $85,910 $174,690
District of Columbia $123,140 $84,300 $177,240
Florida $106,440 $63,710 $164,920
Georgia $117,020 $70,730 $168,580
Hawaii $107,060 $64,810 $174,350
Idaho $103,450 $54,840 $148,460
Illinois $108,510 $64,180 $161,250
Indiana $85,190 $49,740 $132,210
Iowa $104,750 $52,930 N/A
Kansas $96,960 $60,320 $128,850
Kentucky $88,820 $43,800 $156,000
Louisiana $85,580 $56,380 $129,640
Maine $85,300 $60,310 $124,650
Maryland $131,260 $74,930 $203,470
Massachusetts $113,610 $64,610 $173,290
Michigan $98,620 $55,030 $155,930
Minnesota $109,760 $71,920 $158,940
Mississippi $81,140 $50,110 $131,990
Missouri $84,140 $40,100 $133,330
Montana $81,080 $51,990 $159,630
Nebraska $96,050 $61,670 $133,050
Nevada $95,710 $64,250 $161,590
New Hampshire $133,680 $82,220 $189,750
New Jersey $130,210 $82,900 $173,310
New Mexico $123,240 $70,220 $165,170
New York $133,100 $76,450 $215,550
North Carolina $117,860 $76,100 $175,320
North Dakota $84,900 $50,220 $130,850
Ohio $103,470 $60,060 $155,900
Oklahoma $95,360 $54,020 $139,680
Oregon $119,990 $66,590 $172,380
Pennsylvania $99,200 $49,220 $148,170
Rhode Island $104,200 $71,840 $164,470
South Carolina $105,000 $56,620 $139,750
South Dakota $101,130 $70,400 $129,790
Tennessee $95,740 $62,240 $164,810
Texas $110,270 $69,040 $162,800
Utah $103,570 $60,110 $174,920
Vermont $79,780 $51,330 $132,050
Virginia $130,130 $80,170 $181,280
Washington $133,120 $82,420 $181,550
West Virginia $86,340 $37,370 $141,760
Wisconsin $104,520 $61,450 $138,620
Wyoming $92,890 $51,280 $123,880

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Final say

In today's digital landscape, cyber security is a growing and ever-evolving concern. Our increased reliance on digital tools, like networks, apps and the cloud means that the demand for cyber security engineers is also higher than ever, and is projected to continue to increase at least during the next decade.

If you're interested in pursuing a career in cyber security engineering, now is the time to get started. All you need to do is click Find Schools to get started exploring online and classroom degree programs to acquire the skills and knowledge you need. As you pursue your education, focus on developing your professional network. The connections you make just might help you to find your first job as a cyber security engineer.

Updated: August 18, 2023

paige cerulli

Written and reported by:

Paige Cerulli

Contributing Writer

rich selvidge

With professional insights from:

Rich Selvidge

President, CEO and co-founder of SecureTrust

Rich Selvidge is a cybersecurity expert with over 20 years of experience. He is the President, CEO, and co-founder of SecureTrust, a leading cybersecurity company. Selvidge has held senior positions at Fortune 500 companies and the Department of Defense, where he led global teams of security professionals. He is CISSP certified and has hands-on security experience at top-secret Army and Air Force research labs. Selvidge's blend of management skills and security know-how has driven SecureTrust's success

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