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What Is a Security Engineer?

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With unprecedented numbers of cyberattacks and billions of dollars in losses due to malicious cyber activity every year, security engineers are more important than ever. 

As IT professionals, these security-focused engineers are responsible for protecting a company’s networks and computer systems to safeguard sensitive information from cyberattacks. By designing, implementing, and monitoring security protocols, they play a monumental role in keeping organizations and their customers safe.

Ready to learn more about a security engineering career? In this guide, we cover:

What Does a Security Engineer Do?

Security engineers, also called network or information security engineers, create and execute cybersecurity solutions to protect an organization’s digital information.

In 2021, Americans reported 847,376 complaints of cybercrimes worth $6.9 billion in potential losses to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). With business email compromise (BEC) schemes accounting for 19,954 complaints and $2.4 billion in losses in 2021 and the average cost per data breach reaching $4.35 million in 2022, companies depend on security engineers to keep their data safe.

So, what is a security engineer, and what exactly do they do?

“Security engineers design and implement systems to prevent hackers from gaining a foothold in the defended network,” explains Ron Gula, president at Gula Tech Adventures. “This can include adding security components to an insecure network such as firewalls, VPNs, authentication systems, and logging, as well as being involved with the actual network design.”

>>MORE: SAP Cybersecurity Virtual Internship Program

Typical tasks include:

  • Identifying system vulnerabilities
  • Conducting security assessments
  • Designing security plans and developing technical solutions
  • Responding to security threats and network intrusions
  • Planning network security upgrades
  • Testing hardware and software
  • Monitoring network traffic patterns
  • Coordinating team incident responses
  • Performing threat modeling

Security Engineer vs. Security Analyst

While some companies use the terms interchangeably and not all organizations employ both, a security analyst is typically more of an entry-level cybersecurity role that focuses on analyzing threats. A security engineer, on the other hand, has advanced technical and programming skills and often works on building the security infrastructure.

However, engineers and analysts work together very closely on a cybersecurity team. Security engineers are the team’s defenders, preparing for attacks by developing security architectures and making adjustments as needed. Security analysts are the team’s attackers — putting themselves in the mindset of a hacker to determine system vulnerabilities and identify potential threats.

>>MORE: Experience a day in the life of a security analyst with Mastercard’s Cybersecurity Virtual Experience Program.

Security Engineer Salary

According to PayScale, security engineers in the U.S. make average base salaries of around $99,000 per year, with total pay up to $145,000 per year. Senior cybersecurity engineers with several years of experience may earn closer to $124,000 in average base yearly salaries (up to $173,000 in total pay).

Salaries for engineers in cybersecurity also vary by location. For example, the highest annual security engineer salaries, as reported on tax returns, were in San Francisco, California ($196,000), San Jose, California ($189,000), and New York City, New York ($135,500).

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Security Engineer Skills

Of course, engineers need a wide range of hard skills to be successful in this technology-focused role. 

“Security engineers need to have knowledge in how networks and systems operate,” notes Gula. This includes “WiFi, routing, switching, virtual servers, and cloud, as well as how security technologies can mitigate risk of hacking through the use of firewalls, network monitoring, and hardening operating systems.” 

Some important computer programming languages for this career include:

  • Assembly
  • C
  • C++
  • Golang
  • Java
  • JavaScript
  • PHP
  • PowerShell
  • Python
  • Ruby
  • SQL

Cybersecurity engineering also requires various soft skills, such as written and verbal communication and interpersonal skills, to effectively communicate about complex technical issues.

“Most security engineers never get to build a secure network from scratch and instead work on networks and technologies that have a combination of cutting edge and legacy technology,” says Gula. “This requires security engineers to also be excellent communicators and planners, especially with non-technical stakeholders.”

Collaboration skills are also essential for cybersecurity engineers. They must frequently interact with other members of the IT team and the company to make sure everyone is following security guidelines and protocols.

How to Become a Security Engineer

If you’re hoping to become a security engineer, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science, engineering, mathematics, or information systems can give you the foundational knowledge you need.

But, explains Gula, experience and passion for the field can also help pave the way toward a cybersecurity career. “Most security engineers have a passion for technology and some sort of certification, degree, or experience running networks in data centers or the cloud.” 

Cybersecurity certifications are crucial in this field, with at least one certification required for 59% of posted positions. Common certifications include:

  • Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
  • CompTIA Security+
  • Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC)
  • Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

Boot camps and other cybersecurity work experience programs can also give aspiring security engineers valuable experience working on security-related tasks.

Even with a degree and relevant certifications, security engineer jobs are typically considered mid-level IT roles that require specialized cybersecurity know-how. So, you may need to start in an entry-level IT position and learn the ropes before moving to engineer.

“Many security engineers I’ve worked with rose through traditional IT jobs such as help desk or network administration or server administration roles and learned security along the way,” explains Gula.

Ready to find out what it takes to work as a security engineer for a top company? Learn basic cybersecurity skills in JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Cybersecurity Virtual Experience Program.

Image credit: Gorodenkoff / Depositphotos.com

Emily Courtney is an Assigning Editor at Forage. She has written and edited career and education-related content as an Editor for FabJob, Content Specialist for FlexJobs, and Content Editor for Thruline Marketing.