Security engineer job requirements, certifications, and salary

A security engineer helps develop and implement strategies and systems to protect against cyberattacks. Here’s what you need to know about this vital role.

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What is a security engineer?

A security engineer is a cybersecurity professional who helps develop and implement strategies and systems to protect their organization's infrastructure from cyberattacks. This is a role in an organization for someone with enough knowledge and experience to understand both the systems they're defending and the attacks they'll face, and they usually spend more time creating secure systems and networks than they do reacting to threats.

As companies large and small finally realize that cybersecurity is everybody's problem, security engineers are increasingly in demand, and command salaries to match. While this isn't a job for beginners, if you have the right background and experience, it could make for an exciting job and a solid step up in your career as a security pro.

Here, we answer some frequently asked questions about this critical security role.

What does a security engineer do?

A security engineer designs, builds, and defends scalable, secure, and robust systems for their organization's IT environment, protecting all organization assets, including those located away from headquarters. They'll analyze networks to make sure they are operating securely,and try to anticipate possible cybersecurity issues that might arise. Common responsibilities of security engineers include:

  • Helping to create security standards and practices for their organization
  • Recommending security improvements to management
  • Testing, deploying, and maintaining tools such as firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and data encryption
  • Conducting scans of networks and penetration tests to look for vulnerabilities
  • Monitoring networks for breaches or intrusions
  • Leading incident response activities and investigations into how intrusions occurred
  • Helping plan cybersecurity strategy 

What is the difference between a security analyst and a security engineer?

Understanding the distinction between a security engineer and a security analyst is a good way to grasp the nature of a security engineer job. A security analyst, particularly if they work in a security operations center, spends much of their time tracking down threats moment by moment or reacting to breaches in progress. A security engineer, by contrast, has the more strategic role of building out both technical infrastructure and a set of organizational policies that harden the entire company against attacks.

Day to day, this means a security engineer spends less time chasing down attackers and more time designing systems so that security is built in, as well as penetration testing existing systems to test their infrastructure's mettle and working with other staff to improve security awareness. However, it's always important to keep in mind that job descriptions vary from company to company, and in smaller organizations in particular a security engineer might find themselves wearing an analyst hat as well.

Sometimes you'll see the security engineer job described specifically as a cybersecurity engineer; cybersecurity is a term used to distinguish the protection of tech infrastructure from the physical security needed to protect buildings and people, but a security engineer is almost always concerned with cybersecurity. At larger organizations with many security engineers on staff, you may see a distinction between a network security engineer and an application security engineer; these are two specializations within the security engineer job, focusing on securing network infrastructure and application code, respectively.

How to become a security engineer? The education and certifications you need

You'll probably begin your journey to become a security engineer in college. For the most part, people aiming for a security engineer job will have a bachelor's degree in a relevant subject, such as engineering, computer engineering, or computer science. Some schools even offer undergraduate cybersecurity degrees.

IT has traditionally been a field that values skills over paper credentials—we all know the stories of tech pioneers who dropped out of high school—but that's changed over the years as the industry has become more professionalized. That said, most hiring managers do value experience and demonstrated skills, and if you can put together that sort of resume, that can help make up for a non-technical undergraduate degree. At any rate, nobody would make an immediate leap from college to a security engineer gig; you would need to pass through an introductory phase of your career first, possibly as a security analyst.

One way to signal to your employer or potential future employers that you're ready to advance to a security engineer job is by pursuing some relevant formal certifications. Because security engineers have a fairly wide range of duties under their remit, there are a number of industry certs that fit the bill. The following are some of the most widely recommended:

What particular skills does a security engineer need?

Of course, you can't just rack up the degrees and certifications and expect to waltz into a security engineer job: all those are just proxies for the relevant skills you'll be expected to demonstrate in order to secure a gig.

A good security engineer should have the following big-picture skills:  

  • An expert-level understanding of information security concepts and their application via relevant technology solutions.
  • The ability to develop, design, test, and deploy security-related systems and subsystems, as well as clean up computer code bases for common coding vulnerabilities, and work with other departments within the organization to secure IT systems.
  • Penetration testing skills, especially if the organization does not have devoted penetration testers.
  • Knowledge of network equipment and architecture, and possibly the ability to install, test, and configure an entire network infrastructure.

In addition, anyone coming into a security engineer gig is going to want at least some of these specific tools in their kit:

  • Expertise in antimalware software, intrusion detection, firewalls, and content filtering
  • Knowledge of risk assessment tools, technologies, and methods
  • Expertise in designing secure networks, systems, and application architectures
  • Disaster recovery and computer forensics technologies and methods
  • Planning, researching, and developing security policies, standards, and procedures
  • System administration, supporting multiple platforms and applications
  • Expertise with malicious software
  • Endpoint security solutions, including file integrity monitoring and data loss prevention
  • Cloud security, particularly with AWS and Azure
  • Automating security testing tools
  • Chef – a configuration management tool
  • Git – a tool that helps track anomalous changes to files

What interview questions should a security engineer be prepared to answer?

If you're lucky enough to have an interview for a security engineer job lined up, you're probably curious — and maybe a little nervous — about what sort of questions you might encounter. The Infosec Institute has a really great list that shows the breadth of things you'll be asked in these scenarios. They break the questions down into three levels of difficulty, but to us, perhaps the more interesting distinction is all the different ways the questions will make you think. They include:

  • Questions about basic knowledge ("What is the CIA triangle?")
  • Questions to see if you can explain important techniques ("How would you login to Active Directory from a Linux or Mac box?")
  • Questions about your own personal cyber-life ("How do you protect your home wireless access point?")
  • Questions that give you an opportunity to show off your technical problem-solving skills ("You are remoted in to a headless system in a remote area. You have no physical access to the hardware and you need to perform an OS installation. What do you do?")
  • Questions that give you an opportunity to show off your organizational problem-solving skills ("You are an employee for a tech department in a non-management position. A high-level executive demands that you break protocol and allow him to use his home laptop at work. What do you do?")
  • Questions about your overall tech philosophy ("What do you think of social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn?")

Some of these have definite right and wrong answers. But many—and these are the more important ones by far—are a chance for you to show an interviewer how you think, how you approach problems, and what knowledge you draw from in the process.

What jobs are available for security engineers?

You should at this point have a pretty good idea of what a security engineer job entails. One thing to keep in mind is that, while this is a tech job, it's not a job that's limited to the tech industry: just about every company that's larger than a handful of people, in every sector, needs security engineers. Government agencies and financial institutions in particular have a great need for security engineers, but you could also find yourself working in manufacturing or retail as well.

One thing's for certain: the demand for security engineers is growing, with no sign of letting up. In 2021, Focal Point listed it as the most in-demand cybersecurity job for the sixth year in a row, and demand was expected to grow another 12% through 2026.

What is the average security engineer salary? 

And as you'd expect for an in-demand job that requires specialized skills and some industry experience, salaries for security engineers are generous. As of this writing, Glassdoor's average for the position is $109,770; the Infosec Institute's 2021 stats for the U.S. range from $91,000 in Atlanta to more than $125,000 in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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