Ethical Hacking: Should You Certify, or Learn By Doing?

Should you try to learn ethical hacking on your own?

One of my favorite subjects and certainly one of the hottest topics out there right now is cybersecurity and ethical hacking. But wait, you say, what is this "ethical hacking," and aren't those two words antonyms? We'll get to that in a moment.


People also want to know the best way to become an ethical hacker. The word "hacker" suggests a learn-by-doing ethic, but there are certainly certifications and training that can help you along the way. The Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification is one of the first things most people connect to the phrase "ethical hacker."


Also, when we think of that "learn by doing" approach, do we mean that you can teach yourself without breaking the law? Or are self-made ethical hackers all reformed bad guys? Maybe the best path is to take a few small steps down the ethical hacking trail, and then get a certification. Let's get into it!


What is an ethical hacker?


It is important, first of all, to establish what we mean by "ethical hacker." Most will say that an ethical hacker is simply a computer security expert, skilled in cybersecurity, who knows how to get inside a computer network, physical location, or even a person's brain (what's known as social engineering). In essence, a good ethical hacker knows how to use a computer to get into somewhere, no matter where that place may be.


Others will say that an ethical hacker is an individual who is formally trained as a penetration tester, meaning someone who defines or supports an effort to make sure an information network is secure by trying to "break into" it, either with a computer or by other nefarious means. For example, one famous hack involves dropping USB keys or flash drives outside a facility and seeing whether anyone will pick one up and connect it to a workplace computer. A flash drive can be configured to attack a computer with code — should you be so unwise as to retrieve and connect such USB bait, then get ready for an inoperable computer.


Other non-technical methods of penetration testing involve disguise. Posing as a law enforcement official, security guard, or delivery driver can be a simple means of gaining entry to premises that might otherwise be off limits. Should you engage in such an ethical hack, of course, be sure to make yourself aware of locals laws regarding dressing up as a police officer — don't learn this the hard way.


Still, there are group of people who see the word "ethical" and laugh. Who hires an "ethical" lawyer or an "ethical" real estate agent? A person's job title implies what they do, and while lawyers and real estate agents are expected to be upright by the sheer nature of their duties, hackers break into things.


Just know that, while defining what an ethical hacker is and does may be tedious, what is not hard is to define where they stand. They are the good guys, they protect and serve the interests of their employers. They learn to think and act like a bad guy so that bad guys won't be able to get into your network down the road.


What do ethical hackers do?


The profession of ethical hacking covers a wide swath of duties currently. You can be a face man (or woman) and diagnose vulnerabilities openly and in concert with a customer, or you can hide in the shadows and attempt to hack a client's system. You could be a field tech who runs "ops" for a penetration testing company — you get to play dress up or "covert operative." (This appeals to a lot of people who grew up watching spy movies and have an affinity for computers.)


Assessments and freelance work are another big area of the professional sphere with ethical hacking. You could go on a site like and get a multitude of jobs that involve ethical hacking: teaching it, running training sessions for non-cybersecurity personnel, or making online academy modules for others to sell.


There is a multitude of work for the eager ethical hacker. This sphere of work is perhaps most important right now because the number of plain old hackers of the criminal variety is at an all-time high. There has never been a more important time to become a good guy than right now.


Should you teach yourself to hack ...


There is a school of thought that says that the best ethical hackers are former black hat hackers. "Black hat" refers to hackers whose hacking is motivated by criminal intent. If you have experience with illegal hacking, then you can reform and become a very sought after ethical — or "white hat" — hacker.


Black hats can be hardened criminals, gang members, and worse, but there are also many black hats who tend to steer clear of government or high-level corporate targets. These hackers often begin as inquisitive teens and are mostly into hacking for low level thrills or pranks, or to feed smallish vices: cheating at video games, pirating movies, souping up personal computing rigs, and so forth.


Here again, small potatoes hackers can earn big cheese paydays by choosing to change the color of their headgear and seek legitimate employment.


... or learn from someone else?


Another way to glean the rudiments of hacking is to be trained, follow a mentor, or seek out books, videos, and other sources of knowledge. This "book smart" approach is popular for those who have an interest in computers, but didn't grow up hacking their way around the world.


I am, for the most part, a person who believes that you need to grow up with at least a slightly illicit mindset. While you can learn to be an ethical hacker by gaining a mentor or reading books or getting a certification, the best hackers know about the dark side of hacking from firsthand experience. They grew up with it, they have it running through their veins — they just channel it for good, rather than evil.


Get trained in ethical hacking


Should you learn ethical hacking on your own, or get trained?

Never fear — as with most things in IT you can get a huge leg up on ethical hacking by learning the basics of information technology: networks, hardware, systems administration, and so forth. Learning the basics costs very little and you can step on the gas as hard as you want, and go as fast as you want. You can even accelerate your learning, and get paid at the same time, by getting a non-cybersecurity IT job.


Once you're inside the IT world, you can follow the certification route. It may not have the glamour of being a digital rogue who has stepped into the light, but certification can go a long way toward convincing firms that you have all of the proper skills and are familiar with the tools of the trade.


The only real negative of certification is the cost. For a person just starting into a career in IT, the costs can pile up fast. Be sure to read my article on how to fund your certification addiction in order to remove this negative from the equation.


It used to be the case that EC-Council's aforementioned Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification was the big kid on the block. I have this certification and it is invaluable as proof that you understand the concepts of the profession and the duties associated with a future job in the field — but it is no longer your only option. GIAC offers an incredible penetration testing certification (GPEN), and Offensive Security has a small but growing lineup of certifications, including its signature Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) credential that is at the top of the heap for "must haves."


No matter how you go about getting started with Ethical Hacking, you should start sooner rather than later. Now is the best time to get started with a new career path or to upgrade your current sphere of competency. I wish you the best of luck and happy certifying.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive.

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills include finance, ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.