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Ask HN: Starting a career in security at 40?
190 points by johnnycarcin on Nov 19, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 111 comments
For the security folks out there, what is the market like? How much weight is put on having some of the various certifications out there?

I have always had an interest in security, especially the red/blue team side of things as well as the forensics area. I have spent my entire career in the world of sysadmin/SRE/shitty dev however so nothing on my resume shows "security". The last couple of weeks I have been looking at some of the certification classes and... wow, they can get pretty crazy. The SANS online stuff is like $6k per course!

Being close to 40 and making six figures (not a brag, just using it for background) I am worried that it's too late to make the jump and still be able to provide for my family. It seems like a pretty big risk to drop multiple thousands on certifications only to start at a salary much lower than I currently have. I'm not willing to impact my family by taking a potential 50% pay cut. I realize there are risks with any kind of career change, I just want to make sure I'm not going into this blind.

Does it make sense to go after some of these certifications, even if they are not from SANS? Is the security world hiring and paying well these days? Am I looking for too much and should just except the fact that a major pay cut would be part of the process?


You'll do fine.

Don't waste time with certificates. They mean fuck all in the industry. Any job that cares about them is a job you don't want.

Try to get some clarity about what part of security you want to work in. All the subfields are open to you. Do you want to do operations work? Do you want to exercise your software development muscles? Do you want to work offense or defense? My advice might be different depending on the answers to those questions, but no matter what you want to do, you should be fine.

Do you have any resources / direction to give to a software engineer who'd want to learn more about security?

As a full stack web engineer I feel like I know nothing about security (just like most people) and I'd love to have more knowledge about it, even maybe work on this.

I have a small design and engineering studio, and might be interested in getting into that kind of services, if I discover that I get interested in this enough.

One option is to go through the security stackexchange and/or the cryptography one. Pick a tag, sort by votes and go through the questions and responses.



Look for a local group such as Security BSides - go to the meetups, get to know other professionals, learn from them, and get involved with their events.

Certifications are a way to bypass HR filters, and allow you to negotiate higher salaries. I agree that in terms of imparting actual skills and knowledge they are of minimal value. Being mentored by your peers, being involved in the community, and learning by doing are by far the best ways to learn Security. Certificates are relatively easy to earn and have high ROI in terms of salary and negotiating power in my experience.

This is what everyone who voluntarily paid for a certificate tells themselves. As a hiring manager (for ~10 years now) in software security who talks to a lot of other hiring managers, I am pretty confident that the supposed ROI for certification is not there. Also: if you're dealing directly with HR filters when trying to get a job somewhere, you're already playing to lose. A much higher ROI would be gained by learning how to seriously pursue a targeted role.

Thank you for sharing your experience. I think there is a lot of truth in what you said. It is probably very situation dependent - in my case getting that first cert and paying out of pocket is how I broke in from IT Ops and got my first security consulting gig. The resulting pay bump paid for the cost of the cert in 6 months. For all certs thereafter I've had my employers pay for it as part of a benefits package. Obviously this is only a single data point, but many of my colleagues have similar stories so I feel like it can't be completely unique to me. YMMV.

The value of a (good) certification is that Rumsfeld’s Law applies: you don’t know what you don’t know. Even if you never finish the programme you will at least pick up an idea of what you need to learn, the common vocabulary etc.

If you want to pay for a forcing function, that's fine, but be clear with yourself that that's all you're really paying for.

Certainly I would push back hard on the idea that a certification of any sort is something you need to obtain a first job in the field.

I generally agree with you on your points, but I'll share an anecdote.

I once had a friend ask me about getting a certificate in an unrelated field from one of those ultra for-profit schools they advertise during the day on TV. I told her it was basically worthless and that places that cared about that cert and those schools probably weren't worth working at.

Long story short, she went ahead and got the cert from the money mill, got a job at a place that cared about it, and despite my personal distaste for it all, she ended up loving the job and is very happy there a decade later. So...YMMV.

So I think it's hard to categorically say the OP will hate those places when in fact they might find them perfectly suitable. Some people just really like the kind of work those places do and are perfectly happy having a handful of 3-5 letter certification acronyms after their name on their business card.

As the question of whether they're worth the paper they're printed on and if those companies that care about those things are worth the air that comes out of their central heating, I have to say I personally agree with you. They probably aren't helping humanity or the security field any and I keep far far away myself.

But to your other point, the security field is tremendously huge and honestly a lot of it is paperwork pushing certification, compliance and accreditation stuff.

How would you practice this craft? Is practicing on pentesting websites (like https://www.hackthebox.eu/) a good idea?

Or is there a better way to learn the various tools?

Edit: I have also completed some of the challenges on http://cryptopals.com/ a while back to get better with developing Python code.

Start here:


Cryptopals is great! :) If you've gotten all the way through set 6 and are interested in a first software security gig, get in touch. Those challenges have been a pretty excellent predictor for us.

Does this still ring true for someone with no experience in the industry?

I figure a certification is an effective "proof of expertise" when there's no employment history to back you up.

I think what he means with certifications is that they'll get you the jobs you don't really want.

For example, CEH (Certified Ethical Hacker) is a certification you'll see in a lot of job postings. The thing is, if you know this field, you know that this certification is worthless; it's just an expensive piece of paper. So, if you get a job that requires you to be CEH, it's telling a lot about the company itself, you don't want to work there.

Same goes for the other certs, CISSP is OK but it doesn't really prove you can actually do useful work, and the jobs that require them are not the most interesting ones. The other popular one is OSCP, which I think is quite OK. It shows a minimal level of competence.

But I tend to agree with the feeling that certification in this field do more harm than good. What we need is more professionalism and good engineering.

EDIT: To clarify my point on OSCP, it is good in the sense that they force you to do hands on work. But, it is very narrow and most of what you learn are "tricks". An OSCP holder is proven to know what a pentest it, how to go about with it, and has a lot of sometimes useful tricks under his belt. It will not tell you whether someone really knows how applications and systems works.

Agree on the other certs -- but have you actually looked at the requirements for OSCP?

I think it's a bit more in depth than you believe.

OP is right. OSCP is an entry level certificate in pentesting. That doesn't mean it's easy to get, and the people that have it will certainly have put in the time.

Security skills are just not something you tend to pick up in 4 hours flat.

source: have both OSCP and OSCE, and I work in the industry

OSCP covers a significant part of my actual subfield in security, and I think it's pretty silly.

Well that's no good, I'd been told by others in the field it was a good cert. Guess I won't waste my time with it.

I second this. I moved from systems engineering to the security field without issue. Security organizations now more than ever need a full spectrum of developers, system engineers/sysadmins and operations folks. You likely already have all the skills you need to find a decent position somewhere. Your existing skills should translate quite well.

Sorry but this "fuck certs" mentality just does not hold true for the security industry. It might be true in software but not here. The security industry is much more regulated than software, and with good reason - how is a company looking to hire penetration testers or blue-teamers supposed to tell between somebody who is doing they're job and somebody who isn't? If a security professional does they're job properly then you won't notice anything at all.

Yes certs are not everything, but they are proof to an extent of ones ability. Some certs like the CEH are worthless but others like the OSCP or CRT (in the uk) are definitely not worthless.

The whole "fuck certs I dont need a piece of paper to show I can do something" is somewhat juvenile and really only applies to the software industry. Most other industries have some form of regulation.

I've been in the security industry since 1997. The last 13 years of that were spent building consulting teams --- amusingly, the first of which was one of the largest app pentesting firms in the country, and the current one is focused on "blue-teamers", as you put it. I have no idea what "regulations" you're referring to, and am certain that certifications --- very much including OSCP --- mean fuck-all in the real world.

In the UK at least there has been a strong drive to regulate security companies through organisations like CREST and CHECK. The problem is that its an industry with a massive amount of hidden information. If somebody does a pen test on an corporate network and says "we didn't find any vulnerabilities" how does a company know if they have actually done a thorough check or if the network is genuinely secure?

Yes in an ideal world we wouldn't need certifications or exams or anything but this isn't an ideal world.

I don't know what part of "there are no certificates required to do this kind of work" I'm failing to communicate. My last company was acquired by NCC Group, a UK public company, and I haven't met anyone from the UK side who was certified either.

I never once said that certifications are required to do this work though did I?

I strongly disagree. What matters in the security field is the ability to program, a desire to learn, and an deep interest in security itself.

Absolutely those are all important qualities but the idea that certs are completely worthless just doesn't hold any weight.

Can I ask if you apply the same logic to the lawyers? Do you think the bar exam is pointless? What about chartered accountants? Or Engineers? Should pilots have to pass a test? What about drivers license tests? Are they just worthless pieces of paper too?

The practice of law is an older field. When I hire a lawyer, I presume that they have sat for the bar, but my inquiry goes much deeper. If I need a contract reviewed, I try to ascertain if candidate lawyers have experience reviewing contracts, and look for recommendations for that service. If someone were to sue me, I would look for a lawyer who is experienced at litigation. In this case, a lawyers certification, which is the bar exam, is a known test for the knowledge of law, which is done after serious study.

Certifications such as the CISSP don't tell me as a hiring manager anything about a candidate's skill in the required areas. As a buyer of security services, a shop with CISSP services often has a negative correlation with quality of an application penetration test.

I get the sense the biggest obstacle to your career pivot may be the circumstances of a typical 40 year-old. You probably have bills to pay and a lot of responsibilities that consume your non-work time.

The transition to the roles you've mentioned may require a significant period of unpaid, expensive self re-training, and if you want that re-training to end any time soon, you will want to spend a lot of hours on it. Can you handle those two things?

Here's an interesting tale of someone younger than us who took a path into security from zero.[0]

[0] http://blog.mallardlabs.com/zero-to-oscp-in-292-days-or-how-...

This was my thought too. As you get older you tend to add more and more responsibilities: children, debts, and these require that you both work and don't work too much, meaning that the time you can truly spend on a new avenue is quite low. That's the true challenge, I think.

From the blog: "Know what you're getting yourself into, [OSCP] took me 292 days full-time"

Security has a large number of unfilled positions currently:




and security jobs tend to be slightly higher paying than other IT positions. With some certifications and a few years of experience you have a good chance to be making a comparable salary to your current one.

SANS tends to be on the high end of cost for certifications. Look into the following organizations for more options:




A background in IT and Dev is highly valuable for Security jobs. You will find that many of your current skills are applicable.

Look at job postings in Indeed, LinkedIn, etc. job sites for roles that interest you and look at the certifications and experience they ask for. That will help guide your investigation into what you need to qualify.

(I have been working in the security industry for the past 10 years in various capacities, caveat emptor etc.)

You can almost double your total comp overnight going from a devops/infra role to an infosec role. If you're in ops, get out of ops and go into security. More money, no on call rotation, better career trajectory.

Potentially, if you find that magic role and are qualified. I am too cautious to say you could 2x from a 6 figure salary without putting in a few years getting experience and proving yourself first. Not saying it isn't possible, but overnight is probably an exaggeration. If you're willing to travel and do consulting it's realistic, but it sounds like OP may not be willing to go that route.

Sometimes you have to leap off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.

>no on call rotation

In my experience that hasn't been true at all, but the rest is definitely accurate.

Probably true for pen testers, forensics, or immediate response. I refer to architecture roles. I don't do on call anymore, my family comes first.

Ah yeah, that makes sense (as an aside, I am jealous and hope to get there someday). You'll almost certainly have on-call in ops, which is what OP seemed to be most interested in.

Secops people have on-call rotations. Pretty much nobody else does.

First of all: what in particular do you find interesting of the security field? Are you more interesting in the offensive or defensive side?

I guess that given your background, the smoothest transition will be to something like application security engineer/devops security. There is a trend where companies are hiring developers who also know security, to be part of the dev team. So any bug that has an impact in security will be fixed by this role. Also, the new architectural landscape (cloud everything) is really changing the game, and having expertise in these solutions from a security perspective is a very valuable skill.

I don't know of particular certifications for application security or "DevSecOps" that will help you. I know that for example, in your situation; CISSP is not useful. CISSP jobs are mostly boring.

If you're interested in the offensive side, then the OSCP certification is a good bet; it shows that you understand and are able to execute a simple pentest. It is a well regarded certification and It will mostly make up for your lack of professional experience in the subject.

In conclusion, you're making good money right now; unless you're really bored and unchallenged, I'll start getting into security as a hobbie, and see how can you apply what you learn on your current job. Maybe you can even change roles where you're at. But try to use your current experience and give it a security twist, so you can then build on your experience instead of trying to make up for the lack of it with bogus certifications.

Appreciate the reply!

With regards to what do I find interesting, honestly I would put offensive at the top of the list but I do have interests in the defensive side as well as the malware analysis. I am, what I believe, a "problem solver" by nature so I enjoy the idea of being given some unknowns and being told to go figure it out.

With that extra detail, it appears you are seeking the sort of job I posted in the hiring thread:


You say that "nothing on my resume shows "security"" and that is fine... look, the job posting doesn't say it either. Certifications don't count for anything. Most of us here don't show up with "security" or certifications on a resume.

That said, the skill you list as "sysadmin/SRE/shitty dev" (for "SRE" being either "software release engineer" or "site reliability engineering") probably isn't going to cut it. Something more low-level is usually needed. You almost need to be good at assembly language.

Of course, you're welcome. I forgot to address the salary question. Six figure jobs are common in this industry, but experience is required to get those jobs. I don't personally know of anyone that did the change at your age, but a good thing is that (unless you want to go enterprise or government) the industry is not to demanding on formalities, a lot of people don't even have degrees. It's a field where it's easy to detect if someone really knows what he/she's talking about. And if someone is useful and helpful, nobody will really care your experience, academic history, etc.

If you're interested in stuff like malware analysis, then you could start doing it as a hobby and maintain a good blog where you explain all your analysis as you learn.

I can easily offer an existence proof for "six figure jobs" in security that do not require previous experience in security to obtain. I don't think we're that far out of the mainstream.

(We're not competing with FAANGs for compensation, but that's not what "six figures" means).

You should be aware that you just described three very different roles --- "offensive security" (scanner jockey -> netpen -> appsec -> vuln research / red team), defensive security (secops -> seceng -> security management), and malware analysis (malware analysis -> malware analysis -> still more malware analysis).

For you, the most important question might be how much you enjoy coding.

In order of appearance of '?', here are my responses

1. Market is pretty hot and you will be get multiple choices to pick from the available offers 2. Certifications have very little to do with the job (Full Disclosure - I am currently maintaining CISSP, CCSP, GWAPT, GMOB certs ) That being said, sometimes HR/recruiter use these for filtering candidates. You can look at security+ certification to get a feel. 3. It will make sense even if its not from SANS because people who have done SANS know that a) SANS is very expensive b) its an open bool exam 3) Does not involve hands-on. For that matter, if you will go after coveted OSCP, then people will understand that you have hands-on skills.

4. You should get equivalent or more pay because the market is hot. Most of the earlier security professionals came from SysAdmin/Dev background. You have a better understanding of how systems/apps, so it will be easier to break them or identify vulnerabilities.

There are several blogs (e.g. https://tisiphone.net/category/security-education/) available to find a learning path for security, so check them out. Self learning is the biggest skill that you will need.

PS - Started my career in Information Security 9 years back, right after coming out of school

It's a great time to be in security, definitely a job seeker's market. I've been in security for ~8 years now and don't have any certs and don't see a whole lot of value in them unless your employer/clients require them (some consultant or government shops do). I place a much higher value on knowing your stuff and being able to earn the respect of other engineering teams when helping them understand more secure ways to build what they're trying to build.

Some of the best security engineers I've known came from a network engineer or sysadmin background. So don't worry if you don't have a "masters in security". I'd spend some time thinking about the last large system you built. How would someone attack it? How would you detect those attacks? What would you do if they were successful? How could you have architected around those weaknesses? If doing that seems like fun, my team is hiring in Seattle, feel free to drop us a message at prodsec-recruiting@tableau.com

Senior network engineer for an ISP here, when you have a network that spans a number of states and provinces, it inevitably develops a huge attack surface. Designing security features into the network is part of modern network architecture, the two are inseparable these days. There's obvious concerns about endpoint security (individual servers, VMs, etc) and then different considerations for network security of routing/switching/WDM/millimeter wave equipment at POPs.

A lot of equipment used by ISPs is barely protected at all, from what I've seen of other peoples' networks. There's a lot of things out there like temperature monitoring devices, UPSes, rectifiers, HVAC controls, security card readers/relay controls, generator monitoring control systems that run ancient shitty software, which the vendor will never patch. People spend a lot of time isolating these things in special management networks because the cost of replacing a big rectifier system at an older POP cannot be justified.

I would say that for somebody that wants to get into a dedicated security role, without having specifically studied netsec stuff in detail, the best background to have is a mixed balance of first/second-tier NOC, network engineering, and general Linux/BSD sysadmin knowledge.

As someone who used to be a senior engineer for an ISP, shout-out to all the STBs with hard coded admin creds :-)

Shout-out to everyone who's ever worked for a large to mid-size ISP, that has acquired and eaten/digested a smaller ISP which has already existed for 12, 15 or 20 years... So much weird legacy gear in weird locations, doing weird things. So many SDH circuits and OC-whatever transport systems.

HAHA Are you me? This is sounds creepily familiar..

Seems to be an endemic problem, maybe if zayo buys everyone else noone will experience it again.

I was significantly older than 40 when I entered the security field after a career in development and technical management. I would consider this phase of my career successful.

What has worked for me is a burning curiosity about security, software and things that go crash at night. And a desire to learn.

Two books are very helpful--The Art of Software Security Assessment, and the Web Application Hackers Handbook. There are many resources available on the web--CTF exercises, post mortems, instructive blog posts, scary news feeds, free tools.

After getting into security as an application security guy, I ended up with a gig that enabled me to build a team of 15, none who had previous security experience, none of whom had or were expected to get certificates. The team did (and is still doing) some terrific things, and now has expanded responsibilities.

So look for jobs that give you a work sample product test and don't require certificates. Make your own learning plan.

I started my career in security at 35, a few years ago.

I had a strong reverse engineering background from the software development projects I'd worked on professionally, and had dabbled in security-related things in my free time, so certifications weren't required.

It has been a pay increase rather than a pay cut, but I think that was partly due to moving location. I've had two jobs so far, and no shortage at all of offers when I was looking.

Having significant prior software development experience has been useful. About half of my work so far has been writing tools to assist vulnerability research, and the other half analyzing and discussing security bugs with the developers responsible for making the fix, so having this background has helped in both of these. But it depends what area of security you're aiming for.

I would say go for it, put your resume out there, if you've done anything at all even tangentially related to security in your working life then you have a good chance.

To be honest, I didn't think I had a chance compared to all the elite hackers and researchers who've been doing this sort of thing for years, and was surprised it all worked out.

Hello, can you provide an email address where I can contact you? I am very early in my career but it seems we've had similar paths and I would like to ask you some questions.

I made the switch from web development to security a few years ago and initially took a 10-15% pay cut. I didn't get any certs and wouldn't necessarily recommend them. Instead, I joined various bug bounty programs to get practical (and resume-lite) experience.

Having implementation experience (via webdev) in addition to the bug bounty experience was a plus when I was interviewing.

If you're in a tech hub like SF or NYC there is plenty of security work. But, yeah, I would expect some kind of a paycut since you are moving from a (potentially) senior position to an entrylevel position.

> Having implementation experience (via webdev) in addition to the bug bounty experience was a plus when I was interviewing.

Hiring manager here. Assuming you successfully demonstrated these skills during the interview process, the pay cut probably shouldn't have happened.

A minor pay cut can happen for various reasons. There is not enough information to say it should or shouldn't have happened.

Absolutely true, hence the assumptions. It also assumes the OP's prior pay wasn't atypically high e.g. to fill a very specific need such as self driving computer vision refinement.

I wouldn't consider a 10-15% dip a "minor" one, though. That's consistently tens of thousands of dollars in the top ten US metro markets for these roles.

If you get the CISSP and are a good manager you will most likely end up triaging bugs and not actively testing. This is a compliant I have heard from new members on our team. Security isn't always sexy, and people actually get pissed off at me for breaking shit and halting releases. At the end of the day too, no one gives a shit if I break into a box, they just want me to tell them it's secure enough today. It can be a thankless job sometimes.

You don't need a SANS class, they can teach you a lot but there are places for newbies that get more for much less. It's better to get a job and see what they need you to do on a daily basis, then choose a SANS class to get better at that specific skill. I'd just put your resume in now as a sysadmin and see what happens. We hire plenty of people with devops/sysadmin backgrounds and teach them as we go.

Certifications are pretty much not required. Some are seen as a joke and will actually get you weeded out if they are on your resume.

Compliance is very... very dull and is seen as a joke to serious security folks because the bar is set very low. I would say avoid this completely if you want to enjoy coming to work. (Sorry for compliance folks out there)

Six figures is common for a lot of people on here. Security makes more than some software devs depending on your skill level and company. I don't know what you do now, but you would most likely be matched or higher depending on how strong your skills are.

I'd say the hardest thing is you always have to learn new technology and keep up to date with the latest trends. CI/CD pipelines, containerization, blockchain (rolls eyes), cryptography, different cloud environments, smart phones, cars, etc. You will almost definitely encounter something you have never seen before and need to learn as much about it as possible in order to secure it.

40 is a great time. In fact, I went down a similar path.

Now that you've done your share of sysadmins, SRE and software developer, you can see how things can fail. That's the heart of security. As tptacek advises, choose an area of security to focus on and go down that path for awhile. You'll find you will want to go further or jump to another path, but security is a great thing. The world is going to need more security-aware people and you can be at the forefront of it.

My current security focus is holistic defence of data flowing from customer to company. The whole SDLC lifecycle. It's fun but super challenging because it focuses on changing human mindsets and behaviour, but my Dev and ops skills are essential to my technical success.

And certs are useless on their own. Don't do certs unless you can specifically get something out of it. Your work experience is much more valuable than a cert at this point.

If you don't mind, I would love to know how "changing human mindsets and behaviour" and "Dev and ops skills ... technical success" go together for you!

Is your goal creating a development process that leads to a secure system, or securing a system made by an existing process? How much code do you write? Maybe some tasks you've enjoyed or a typical day would be great.

I say this because, while I've never had or wanted a title that included security, as a dev I often find myself looking at "holistic defense of data flowing" and attempting to improve the situation. A role based on that concept is interesting.

Allow me to disagree with tptacek a little:

The OffSec Penetration Testing with Kali Linux (OSCP certification) is excellent and outstanding and cheap.


While the course itself is $800, you'll most assuredly need another 60 days of lab time for the certification. I think all-in-all it cost me $1,500 for everything.

The course material is excellent and wide-ranging and very hands-on. If you have a family, it's a serious investment of time. It put a serious dent into my night time hours for a couple months.

The OCSP certification is widely-respected and not just a "paper certification" like some of the others (c|eh). Lots of practical skills. Great stuff.

I'm just one data point but I'm a hiring security manager and if someone had OCSP it would mean nothing to me.

Same. To some extent the presence of certs is a lacks-clue indicator to me. That's not fatal (lots of great hires really understand security but know nothing about the industry) but it starts my evaluation of you off at 'greenhorn'.

You are probably looking for advanced people (or you might just be a shitty recruiter...). As a second data point I can tell that having OSCP can help you significantly in the beginning of your career (and for a reason, most entry-level certs are just complete bs and it's nice to have something to show off when you are lacking actual experience).

Second this point. One hire that I had a voice in getting hired showed up with no current job, no security experience, but had written a compiler at home, just for fun. Has what most folks would consider a spectacular career since then.

~Same. I expect in the most charitable case it means about as much to infosec hiring managers as bootcamps do to developer hiring managers.

What are you looking for in that case? I mean, in the absence of previous experience doing the same thing.

The way I look at it, people come into technical security either from operations or development backgrounds, but it's hard to distinguish someone who has the required skills from their years in dev or ops from those who have managed to do their core work so without going into the relevant details; their CVs are going to look pretty much the same.

A hobbyist might have practiced on some CTFs or vulnerable machine challenges, but unless they haven't e.g. won some bug bounties or gotten some CVE disclosures, then that won't be really visible on a job application. If certifications aren't considered relevant by security hiring managers, what is?

Things that would count:

You wrote a compiler, kernel, emulator, firmware, or boot loader.

You wrote a small demo, such as 4096-byte or 512-byte. Like this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demoscene

You have hand-optimized code via assembly language.

You have debugged software with a JTAG device or a digital logic analyser.

Why would those things count more or less than other things? It seems more like a list of things you think are neat but trying to guess what a resume-reader might think is neat seems like a game with very poor returns.

Well, those things fit the job I posted: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18358038

The common feature is low-level experience. Somebody should be comfortable with assembly and related things.

It's true that not all security jobs are the same of course, so there will be plenty of places wanting other stuff, but I don't know about those.

Ah that makes sense but then those things would be useful when applying for your specific job rather than things that would be useful when looking to make a specialization switch and are wondering whether certifications are useful.

We hire resume-blind, based on work-sample challenges.


... why nothing to you?

You're not likely to have much luck jumping straight into the R/B team pentesting or forensics world without either some practical experience or certification. With a firm tech background I can imagine you can re-train into a slightly lower position on the security totem pole pretty easily though. Certs can be a mixed bag - pretty much everyone knows they don't actually mean a whole hell of a lot other than a basic grasp of the concepts, but some places will still use them as HR filters. SANS exams can be helpful and are not particularly difficult, but as you said, are very expensive. I'm not really sure about current pay rates for sysadmin type work are, but I wouldn't expect that significant of a pay cut, if you encounter one at all.

Security as a field in general is definitely hiring, though. You'll almost certainly be able to get a job pretty much anywhere in a large variety of companies. For example, here in the Midwest there's a lot of health providers, insurance companies, and banks that have plenty of positions available at locally competitive rates (though bear in mind this exists outside the SV wage bubble) and they generally do not have any qualms about hiring older folks.

I come from a similar background as you and I've done CISSP from (ISC)2. I always thought it would be useless as I thought that I can't learn new stuff because I am sysadmin/SRE/shitty dev.

What I observed from a sysadmin/SRE perspective vs pure security team is that we speak 2 different languages. We often clashed with them and it brought frustrations on both sides.

The material cover in CISSP is very broad and not deep. I've done it on my own and I saved $6K. The book costs 80$ and it takes 3 to 6 months to complete. The exam is a real bitch though! Be sure to be very prepared.

In the end, it's the best moved that I've done in my career and I can now speak with the Security mafia.

Which book did you get?

My career arch is much like yours but at the same time I grew up wearing a greyhat much like how my beard is becoming: black then with time white was added. Most employers value security and actively encourage any efforts in increasing their security posture. Are there not efforts in your current career to "scratch the itch" so to speak? I would agree with many that certs are worthless unless you intend to work as a third party auditor but being able to "talk the talk and walk the walk" matters more.

Background in infrastructure is the best you can have - you will be far ahead compared to many newly educated ‘security engineers’, knowing the application domain.

What I would think about if I were you (was so 15 years ago - started as systems engineer in telco, although has been playing around with systems since childhood) is to try and capitalize on knowledge you’ve got - pick entrypoint to secuirty market as ‘security for X’, where X is the type of systems you’ve been administrating. This way, you’ll have a solid base of problem domain experience, and will be able to easily associate new learning material and new work challenges with experience you’ve already got.

Security is a huge domain of knowledge - being able to bite it with digestible chunks is crucial not to turn into another checklist drone or certified skript kiddie.

I was 36 when I got into security and have never looked back. The fastest, most lucrative route to security is through a role at a vendor. Start to get involved with security at your current job. Get to know the security team. Work on a project with them. Get to know the sales person from an up and coming vendor. Ask him/her abut an SE role. You can easily clear six figures.

Find complements to what you do now that are security related and move from there. If you do devops and SRE, you’re a practitioner in security.

To the right organization, someone with your operational and Dev background is super useful. Many security orgs came from a policy background and have challenges because they lack experienced operations or dev focused people.

Make sure that you understand what you want to do. Map your experience to the appropriate security lingo. Understand the core concepts in NIST 800-53

A lot of the material you’ll find on the web about the industry is consulting focused.

Just an anecdote. I took an opportunity to break into security at 35, with a company that was willing to take a risk on a guy who showed up with a bit of knowledge and a lot of confidence.

I did good work, but expertise was thin on the ground. I discovered that while I like the subject matter a great deal, I didn't like is the chain of responsibility at that organization.

At one point I felt like I couldn't leave because the system would come off the rails if I wasn't there and I harbored some resentment. If you can find a place where you're working in an advisory capacity you won't run into that problem.

Are you seeing job openings where you are taking a big pay cut to work in security? That didn't used to be the case. I used to lament that the problem with my platonic ideal for QA people is paradoxical; the sort of person whom I would cherish as a QA person could spend a year retraining as a security auditor and make more money than me instead of 70% of what I'm making.

- Do the Matasano security challenges - Talk to tptacek (tqbf on twitter): they almost certainly have pointers and opinions

…or just wait for him to comment here.

> tptacek

I am waiting for his seminal thoughts on this actually...really.

I write resumes and consult to job seekers on search strategy topics. I've worked with several clients this year who have transitioned from more traditional IT/admin roles into security - for experienced pros I'd say that IT/admin types are the most common background (as opposed to software dev) for those seeking to enter infosec.

The value of certs depends a bit on the cert, and to be honest I don't typically see the SANS certs. CISSP is much more common, Certified Ethical Hacker is also pretty common, and Comp TIA Security + is one that most junior level IT folks start with (in my experience).

Saying you make 6 figures without saying where you live makes it pretty tough to figure out what you might make in your market. 100K is a ton of money in some areas and peanuts in others.

That is a good point (location). I currently am located in Colorado.

Wow, thank you everyone for your comments! Literally every comment has provided value and caused me to think a bit more on this. I appreciate all of your responses and hopefully this can help others in a similar situation.

40? By God, that's a young whippersnapper. I do remember starting to feel discrimination/agism around 42, and even considered leaving IT, knowing my age would only go up.

Go for it! The agism counter-wind is still weak at 40.

I think anyone that understands how computers and networks work can make a good security engineer. The mindset for breaking things can be taught.

It isn't too late to do something that interests you, it may be painful taking lower pay or having to learn something that isn't directly related to your job.

Try it as a hobby first, attend some security related conferences, like most industries the security folks are kind and happy to share knowledge.

I'd recommend noting down your area. You're going to get a lot of advise, and it's probably very good advice in general. But as someone not in the US, a lot of what I'm reading does not reflect my local market.

Edit: That similarly applies to the "current salary" discussion. Six figures could be a lot, or very poor.

six figures at 40 is not a brag ...

do it. you have the right background and demand is off the charts.

don’t waste time with certs. do buy a CISSP book though to make sure you know what you need to know.

Jumping in the thread since there are a lot of very helpful advices here, I would like to know if my career change seems stupid or not?

Here is my background:

I am a SRE for a FAANG for a couple of years, sharing my time between system development and operational work. I am almost 40, EU based, been doing that for more than a decade.

I am more and more considering a switch to a security position, because I start being tired of operational tasks and oncall duty.

I have a fairly good knowledge of operating system/linux internals, the underlying mechanisms (memory layout, subsystems, io, kernel/user space, ...) how programs work down to the cpu level (registers, stack/heap, assembly, cpu rings, syscalls, stackframe, ...).

Some minors contributions to the Linux thanks to the Eudyptula challenge (eudyptula-challenge.org) I've completed a few years ago, also minor patchs for the FreeBSD kernel.

Security wise, a few years ago I was very interested in reverse engineering (Softice, windasm, ida, understanding exe packers, debuggers detection) and lately managed to participate in a few CTFs and done some Linux reverseme (thanks radare2!)

Security is a very wide world, but reverse engineering/exploiting binaries would be the thing I like the most (familiar with stack smashing, rop, format string attack, everything low-level)

I am also starting to write an toy interpreter/compiler from scratch.

I have been talking to some security engineers from another FAANG company, and realized that what they were doing (security audits, CVEs impact analysis, lot of paperwork/emails/document writing) is something I am not interested in, I like low-level technical stuff.

Hence my question: am I dreaming? Is that possible with this background to find a security position where low-level/reverse-engineering is the main part of the job?

What would be the best thing to start with? Find some security issues in opensource software? reverseme write-ups?

Thanks a lot!

get your CISSP, it cost $700 to take the exam... and you can command 100K with your background. I didn't even have my CISSP and started off at 75K. Granted I have 20 years in programming, DBA, Network Administration and System Administration. You'll do just fine.

I will tell you one thing... security is pretty boring if you are a person that likes to be in the trenches. It's more of a manager role (they even tell you to think like a manager when getting your CISSP). Your role is to identify a problem, document the solution and then audit the outcome. You don't ever fix or correct problems.

There are plenty of unfilled positions in security. Typically, a large SaaS company will have have several security teams: application (Product Security), Infrastructure Security, Network Security, Device security (company laptops, phone, etc.), Red team/penetration testing team, Response team, CIRT (external facing), etc. With your experience, it looks like Infrastructure team might be a good entry. No need for certifications.

CERT First -> Get Security+ cert (Foundational cert, HR Filter, DoD Approved DoDD 8570)- buy some cheap used books off ebay,cert cost ~$300 Network -> Join local user InfoSec groups, follow netsec on Reddit, create a L/I profile - join security groups, RSS feeds - Krebs, Hacker News Continuing Ed -> Community college - 2 year AA degree in Computer Science/Infosec (WGU Online).

I had a hard time getting a job in Java and web development because I had C on Hp nonstop experience. I found it difficult to come to terms with this. I had a decade of experience but I still couldn't get a job in web development. From your post it appears to be more prevalent. Why does this happen in the IT industry? Is it because the tools used are very different?

How does the job market for security work compare to the job market for machine learning? Is the security work more interesting? My reason for asking is that I'm sort of in the same boat. I've got a PhD in Math (not crypto or stats related) and have been doing back end C++ work for a while now. Looking for a move to greener pastures.

Get a security job first, then ask your employer to sponsor the certification program. Also, be aware that for any cert program, there can be multiple domains in which you'll likely have limited to no experience. Start working on expanding your knowledge to cover those areas.

You could take a pay cut learn the business at another firm then start your own shop in two years, #win.

The certification discussion usually raises hackles among security people. I've been in infosec for over 20 years, so take from this what you will.

Question is what kind of work you plan to do. If you are contracting, most public sector contracts are awarded on a points scoring system that gives points for certifications. Given the value of a given contract (e.g. say, ~$200k for a year) paying for a $5k-$10k option on all of them is a sound bet. Other things could tip a points scale, but this is the advantage is what you pay for.

From an economics standpoint, demonstrating differentiated skill is hard. In the jargon, it means signalling costs for competence in security are very high. Many people use papers, blogs, conference speaking, exploits, open source contributions, and media hits to differentiate themselves, and the work that goes into this is more than most normal people put into their careers. A certification doesn't get you the same thing, but it will level you up to a point where many customers/clients are indifferent to the extra value implied by other peoples high cost signals. Is it an honest signal of skill or technical capability? No, but it's sufficient for most procurement cases.

The market (and the ISC2) has tried (and largely succeeded in it) to make the CISSP a bar to entry. It sounds from the OPs post that he is an individual contributor (IC) (instead of a manager) who wants to get into security because it is an IC role with a better future for an older worker than devops.

Realistically, a Masters in information security (distance education on this galore) is sufficient for a drop-in director of security role, as the role is mainly about navigating a large organization and buying technical talent as-needed. I would say having serious technical chops will differentiate you among security pros, where the market has become flooded with non-technical audit and governance people whose role is as an organizational gatekeeper.

Some amazing technical security pros will scoff at this, but what most people don't get is there is a point of diminishing marginal return on technical skill, where the only people who can even begin to appreciate your skills need to be at least half way there, and coincidentally, employers can't tell the difference, and they are a lot cheaper than you are.

The professionalization of the field has meant a new class of administrators will just buy tech expertise when they need it, and operate largely by trading on their political veto (the black box of risk) in their respective organizations.

If you are a technical IC who wants to rebrand as a security technical IC, it's interesting and challenging work with a great culture around it. However, be aware that given the expense and demand of it, the market is being flooded, and my recommendation would be that the longer term game would be to use it as a lever into a general management (or at least SE) role, one that you can still find work in when you are 50.

In answer to your final question, get education that is portable that you can leverage into that general management role. So again, Masters of infosec will set you up for a role you can do when you are 50, whereas technical courses only have about a 5-8 year value horizon.

This is a solid perspective. Thanks for sharing.

Starting career X at age Y. In tech, answer is always yes. How bad do you want it?

The security market is insanely hot right now and will continue to thrive. From my perspective, we are reaching a point where security is seen as a commodity, not some optional process––everyone needs to know about security, even if they aren't working in the field. From a job perspective, schools are not able to keep up with the demand and even then, those leaving academics are not showing strong practical skills they can apply.

SysAdmin/SRE/Dev is the perfect sort of person to transition to security. You are going to think about how the system functions, what is running on top of it and how to ensure it stays online. When I interview candidates, I like see an alternative background as it means that person is going to bring a new perspective. "Security" as a job doesn't really make as much sense to me––you specialize in a given area (i.e. network background folks may maintain appliances, rule sets, detection signatures, etc.) and apply security to that area. I see your area as a means to solve a lot of security problems. Configurations, deployments, etc. can be checked in and accounted for with code instead of relying on people; there's massive power in that.

When it comes to certifications, I think there's two schools of thought. There's folks who look at the paperwork and make sure you can check the box, giving way too much value to certifications. For those who have been around a bit, they see the certification as practical, though no substitution for real-world experience. If you are being cost conscious, check out some of the free resources online for Network+[1] and Security+[2]. The important take away in those materials are not that you _need_ a certificate, but that you should understand the content and be confident in speaking out it.

If the red/blue side is more your style, I can't recommend enough to check out the Offense Security courses [3]. The tool set is free, the course is reasonably priced, it's a lot of fun and will give you real-world experience that is far more favorable than the standard certificates. Skip the whole CEH program as it has a poor reputation.

You mention six figures, but don't provide a scale, so it's hard to know how much a pay-cut you would potentially take. That said, security pays well and it's not uncommon to see salaries in the ranges of $100-200K even with less experience. All salaries are relative, but in general, a lot of my peers are not exceeding 200K on the base, though clear a lot more when factoring in other incentives like stock, or bonus.

Background: Been in security my whole career (started in networking and morphed into security) totaling close to 15 years. Like you, I have a set of skills outside of security (sys admin, networking, dev) and it's played in my favor a lot. Reach out to me direct if you have more questions!

[1] https://www.cybrary.it/course/comptia-network-plus/ [2] https://www.cybrary.it/course/comptia-security-plus/ [3] https://www.offensive-security.com/

#1 Security+ (Foundational Cert, HR filter, DoD Approved DoDD 8570) - ~$300 #2 Network - L/I profile (join groups), Reddit.com(netsec,etc.), Local InfoSec user groups, RSS news feeds - Krebs, Hacker News #3 Degree - get an inexpensive AA degree in Computer Science/InfoSec (@ community college or WGU online)

Get your OSCP. Learn how to automate security tools. Learn Splunk. Learn cloud infrastructure. Use pentesterlab.com. Be able to dev in Python. Read threat reports and become familiar with the various threat actors. Learn some hacking history. Read all of the old zines. Do that and you'll be ahead of most.

Hey, I'm about 8 months ahead of you, I quit my dev job and studied full time to get the OSCP and then took a job as a security consultant with the aim of being a full-time penetration tester. Now I'm going back into development. Security is a broad field but if you want to get into pen testing then you are definitely in a good position skills and career-wise. And yes the security industry is booming at the moment and will likely continue that way.

Don't bother with SANS certs, they are just too expensive and not worth for an individual to take. I would highly recommend the OSCP, you will learn a ton and if you pass its a very well respected cert to have. Stay away from certs which don't have a practical element, i.e. Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) which only reqiures a multiple choice test, nobody cares about these kinds of certs.

However, based on what you say in your post, I don't think its a good idea for you to switch to security. You will likely have to take at least a few months to study for a cert like the OSCP in order to get a junior pen tester role and once you do get that role, you will be earning a junior's wage. Another option would be to spend a few months doing bug bounties to prove yourself but this will also take time to learn the ropes.

You might be lucky and not have to take a 50% pay cut, but the chances are you will have to take at least some kind of pay cut, do you love security enough that you are willing to do that? For me the realisation was that I was starting at the bottom of the ladder as a pen tester despite coming from a very well paid dev job and I was wondering "do I really enjoy this enough that I'm willing to wait a few years until I am earning the same money I was as a dev?". I did like working in security, but not enough to make it worth it for me to start out at the bottom of the ladder again. Also I'm in my late twenties with no kids..

Also one thing to keep in mind, and this varies depending on what kind security job you have, but in pen testing at least there is a significant amount of travel involved which isn't necessarily compensated for by your salary (at least not at a junior level), this is one thing to keep in mind especially since you have a family.

Finally, you mention that you "spent my entire career in the world of sysadmin/SRE/shitty dev", I would suggest trying to look for a "non-shitty" job in one of those fields, you already have a wealth of experience so I would use it to get a job that you like, certainly not all dev jobs are shitty. Maybe you need to learn a new language or framework or gain some specific domain knowlege in order to to work on more exciting problems or in a better enviornment? A lot of the posters in this thread seem to make it out that your job experience will almost mean that you can walk into a security job, while your experience is extremely beneficial, ultimately there is nothing that prepares you for a security job more than the job itself and most pen testers know this. Hence you will likely have to start out as a junior again. Also my experience is based in a large city in the UK (not London), so it might vary from location to location but I doubt the industry is that much different in the US or anywhere really.

My LinkedIn feed is full of barely competent - if I’m being generous - former cow-orkers becoming CISOs. Anyone who knows what they’re doing will certainly make a killing in this field. Good luck!


He did say what he was interested in:

    I have always had an interest in security, especially the red/blue team side of things as well as the forensics area.
You should try replying to the actual post, not the one you constructed in your head.

He also said "With regards to what do I find interesting, honestly I would put offensive at the top of the list".

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