Current and future cybersecurity professionals are using bug bounty programs to gain skills they can use to become security analysts, CISOs, or, in some cases, full-time vulnerability hunters.
As part of its 2018 "Inside the Mind of a Hacker" report, researchers at Bugcrowd polled 65,000 hackers from around the world to better understand who they are, what motivates them, and the sustainability of a hacker career. Most (81%) respondents credit bug hunting with helping them land a job in the security field, and many continue to use it to supplement full-time roles.
Five to 10 years ago, there weren't enough bug bounty programs to turn the practice into a full-time position, says Jason Haddix, vice president of researcher growth at Bugcrowd. Now there is more opportunity: The top 50 hackers' average yearly payout is $145,000, with over 600 valid submissions. The average payout per bug across the platform is $783.
Still, more people prefer to bug hunt on the side while working other jobs or attending university. Students spend 10 to 20 hours per week on ethical hacking, Haddix explains, and 66% of all Bugcrowd respondents spend up to 10 hours per week bug hunting. The practice is giving them valuable skills they can use to help fill the growing security talent gap.
"One of the things that was cool about this report was the amount the hunters are using this experience – finding vulnerabilities and bug bounties – to find jobs in security," Haddix says. It's an interesting educational path in a field where traditional college programs struggle to keep up.
Nearly 41% of bug hunters teach themselves and 43% use blogs and online resources to learn the skills they need. It's a highly motivated group: Nearly 32% want to be full-time bug hunters, 15% aspire to be security engineers at major tech companies, and 6% are training to be CISOs.
The Best Education Is Experience
You don't need a lot of experience to get into ethical hacking, Haddix points out. While 41.5% of hackers polled have three or more years of professional security experience, close to 30% only have one to two years, and 14.3% have no security experience at all. Bugcrowd's hackers are relatively young, with nearly all (94%) between the ages of 18 to 44 and 71.5% between the ages of 18 and 29.
Higher education is still popular; 80% of respondents have attended college. But the percentage of those with a master's degree (18%) matches the percentage of those who have a high school education or less. "Formal education is becoming the road less traveled," Bugcrowd reports. Bug hunters have both the skills and experience companies look for in security job candidates.
"It's powerful to say, 'Instead of taking a certification or class, I found a critical vulnerability on a Fortune 500 company,'" Haddix explains. What's more, they can offer proof of their expertise with a bug disclosure or status on a leaderboard. It goes "leaps farther" than a certification, he says.
The most prominent skill bug hunters learn is Web application hacking, which Haddix says makes up the biggest portion of today's bug bounties. For those getting started, learning Web application testing is a good gateway into ethical hacking – and where the most opportunity is. Most university courses don't dig into Web hacking, he adds, and online resources provide wannabe hackers with fake vulnerable applications they can dig into for practice.
"Practical experience is the one thing you seem to lack in today's security researchers," Haddix adds. "We need people with experience. New people are having a hard time getting into security."