6 Best Programming Languages for a Cybersecurity Career in 2021?

If you’re just starting out on your career path, you might be asking yourself what programming language should learn for cybersecurity?

The truth of the matter is that programming or coding is not a must-have skill for all Cyber Security skill paths.  It’s no doubt beneficial for anyone that works with computers, and you be at a disadvantage to someone that does possess these skills.

However, I’ve worked with plenty of talented individuals over the years that don’t possess any scripting, coding or programming skills.  None of them has struggled in their roles or struggled to find a job.

I would still recommend picking up a basic understanding of the basics and if you find it’s something you enjoy then certainly dig deeper into the subject.

Scripting and programming languages such as Python, C, JavaScript or C++ can not only help you better understand security concepts, but they can help make your day-to-day job easier.

Some cybersecurity roles such as a security software engineer have coding at the heart of their job requirements and can’t be carried out without a practical and in-depth knowledge of the subject.

Other roles such as a security analyst likely won’t have programmed as a must-have, but it can make your life easier.

I completely understand that programming can be a topic that can fill you with dread.  However, I firmly believe that anyone can pick up the skills to at least become familiar with programming.  You might not be writing your own programs, but with time you can learn to amend other people’s scripts or understand what someone else has written.

Why Even Bother Learning to Programme

Nobody will expect you to be someone that is able to complete every cybersecurity task within an organization, but it is still vital to your career to have a general understanding of many topics related to IT.

This general know-how will help you to not only understand cybersecurity threats but to also understand processes and procedures within a business.  If you understand why certain decisions are made within IT, you can better advise or anticipate cyber weak spots.

The same is true of software and programming.  Having a general understanding will better allow you to understand complicated topics, vulnerabilities and potential shortcomings within software or applications.

Cyber attacks and threats are not purely limited to one side of the software.  They vary greatly in severity, the attack methods, and the outcome.  From SQL injections all the way through stack overflows.

If you’re a cybersecurity professional that understands the fundamentals of programming, then you have a much better chance of understanding the causes and potential outcomes stemming from cyber threats.

From an employer’s point of view, having a candidate that can code or simply understand code is a massive incentive to recruit them.

While being able to code a piece of software is unlikely to be a requirement for most cybersecurity jobs, being able to understand at a basic level what a piece of code is doing is a big bonus.

Having that knowledge can help you understand if a script or piece of code is malicious or benign, which is a big plus for employers, especially for cybersecurity analysts.

If you embark on a degree program, you’ll quickly find that many courses have a module or component that touches on programming or scripting. It’s considered by many institutions to be a cornerstone skill.

Not only will having a basic understanding of programming allow you to understand malicious code and increase your efficiency, but it will also prove invaluable when assessing and understanding vulnerabilities and potential security holes in applications.

When a high visibility vulnerability announcement is made, having a background in coding will allow you to quickly understand the impact and assess the criticality of the vulnerability and how it can impact your organization or clients.

It should be noted that there isn’t a single programming language that will allow you to have a complete understanding and comprehension of all weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

For example, having a good understanding of the C programming language can allow you to have a good understanding of buffer and stack overflows.  However, it’ll be of limited use if you wish to automate simple tasks or test vulnerabilities in web applications.  In these circumstances, a scripting language is better suited.

With knowledge of programming, it’s equally important to understand how to apply to your circumstances.  Understanding which toolset to use to help you carry out your job better is an invaluable skill no matter the industry your working in.

What Programming Language Should I Learn for Cyber Security? Our Top Picks

1. C

C is one of the oldest programming languages to exist, beginning its life in 1972.  Despite its age, it’s still very much in demand due to its speed and efficiency.

It could be considered the father of many newer programming languages, for example, Python and Javascript, all of which borrow heavily from C’s syntaxes.

You might be surprised to learn that most modern operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, Linux and macOS were developed using the C programming language.

C is considered by many to be a low-level programming language, which means it has the ability to directly interact with the computer hardware, such as RAM or the CPU.  However, it is flexible and doesn’t necessarily have to be used in such a low level of fashion.

Regardless of how you’re using it, the C programming language is exceptionally powerful and gives you a great deal of power over a computer’s hardware and functions.

The very nature of the C language requires an innate understanding of computer’s fundamental operations and how hardware and software interact with them.

It’s undoubtedly not the easiest language to learn, but it does provide powerful functionality.

C for Cybersecurity

As cybersecurity professionals, being proficient in C can help us understand weaknesses and vulnerabilities at the core of many applications or operating systems.  Understanding the weaknesses that can and are present will go a long way to understanding how best to protect against them.

As C is the cornerstone of most PC and server operating systems, a large portion of the attacks that exist are targeting C.

While it’s a big ask for cybersecurity professionals to be proficient in C and it’s rarely a must-have for most Cyber Security jobs, being aware of it and how it impacts everything we do with computers is a great foundation to have.

Who Should Learn C?

I would advise against learning how to program in C unless you have a passion for programming, or if you wish to become a code auditor or security researcher.

  • Security Researches
  • Code Auditors
  • Penetration Testers
  • Security Software Developer
  • Cryptographer

2. C++

C++ first came into being the 1980’s and has a syntax that is closely related to C.  C++ is an enhanced version of the C programming language with the additional feature of being object-oriented.  It performs in a similar manner to C, but it’s frequently considered to be superior.

Many modern-day applications are created in C++, it’s the cornerstone of the most popular big-ticket games as well as applications you use every day.  If you use a computer, chances are you’re interacting with applications written with C++ without even knowing it.

C++ for Cybersecurity

Much like C, having a working knowledge of C++ can be beneficial for cybersecurity professionals, while being able to code in it isn’t necessarily a requirement.

Understanding how C++ interacts with the core workings of a machine is a powerful skill to have and can better help us understand how this interaction can be exploited as a security flaw.

Knowing how to understand these security issues will make us better-rounded cybersecurity professionals.

The downside is the complexity of the language. C++ isn’t any easier to learn when compared to C, and I wouldn’t recommend becoming proficient in coding in C++ unless your role specifically requires that capability.

It posses a range of features that make it extremely powerful, and we need to understand how it works at a fundamental level, but there are better languages out there if we need to create something quickly and easily.

Who Should Learn C++?

  • Security Researches
  • Code Auditors
  • Penetration Testers
  • Security Software Developer
  • Cryptographer

3. Python

Python is technically considered to be in the same class as C++, it’s a general-purpose language. However, unlike C++, Python is a high level, which means it’s much easier to use.  While C++ is quite frankly challenging to learn, the basics of Python can be learned in a few hours.

Python uses phrases and terms which closely resemble English, so even with minimal training, it’s possible to glean an understanding of a program just by looking at it.

Python was developed in the late 80s and was designed from its very origins to be easy to read, allowing programmers to easily create applications for small or medium-sized projects.

It’s technically a scripting language, which means it’s not compiled into machine-readable code.  Instead, an interpreter translates one line of code at a time into machine code.

While programming languages and scripting languages are quite different in how they function, for the sake of this article it’s not an important consideration. It’s just something bear in mind, Python = scripting.

Python might not be as fast as languages such as C, it’s simplicity and rapid development times means it’s very much in demand for a range of applications. As cybersecurity professionals, Python is one of the better

Python for Cybersecurity

Python is fantastically useful to anyone working in IT, including Cybersecurity professionals.

Not only is development relatively fast and easy, it comes with a range of libraries to augment it’s functionality, further reducing development times and complexity.

Becoming adept at writing Python scripts will allow you to create custom tools, applications and interact with APIs.

Even if you don’t become fluent at writing your own Python scripts, knowing enough to edit someone else’s to meet your needs is hugely beneficial. Allowing you to automate tasks and leverage the full functionality of application APIs.

Who Should Learn Python?

  • Everyone

4. JavaScript

It’s nearly impossible to go about your daily life without running into JavaScript.  In fact, this very webpage used JavaScript to some extent.

As the name suggests, Javascript is a scripting language rather than a programming language, and it shouldn’t be confused with Java. It’s primarily used for web application design and functionality, so is perhaps less useful for use as a Cyber Security professional.

It doesn’t possess the general utility of a language such as Python or C++ but is clearly of significant value for online applications and websites.

JavaScript for Cybersecurity

Those of us that are looking to become penetration testers or vulnerability testers can greatly benefit from having a deep understanding of JavaScript.  Possessing familiarity of JavaScript can help us understand security weaknesses found in web applications.

JavaScript is a legitimate and often exploited attack vector exploited by attackers, allowing for session takeovers, information gathering, and gaining access to restricted resources.

One of the most prevalent attacks on the web called cross-site scripting (XSS) can utilize JavaScript to perform its attack.

As cybersecurity professionals, it’s important for us to understand common attack vectors, so having a working knowledge of Javascript can be a help in progressing your career.

Who Should Learn Javascript

  • Web Application Penetration testers
  • Security Analysts

5. Assembly

Assembly is the lowest level language that humans can read and understand, although I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s easy to understand or intuitive.  The next level down drops into binary 1’s and 0’s.

One of the biggest drawbacks of the Assembly is that it’s specific to a type of architecture.  This means Linux Assembly is quite different from Windows Assembly. However, being able to understand Assembly provides insights into the operations of a computer which is not possible with other languages.

A program written in Assembly will have instructions that allow it to interact with memory locations, registers, and provides a control that’s not possible with other languages.

Assembly for Cybersecurity

Assembly is a must-have for anyone that’s looking to develop their own exploits or understand the fundamental workings of a piece of malware.

It’s not a language that’s going to be easy to learn or one that you’ll likely use in every cybersecurity profession, but it will give you insights into a world that most people are oblivious to.

Who Should Learn Assembly?

6. SQL

SQL stands for Structured Query Language and is used to interact with structured databases.

While it’s not a programming language that allows us to create applications, it is increasingly important for security professionals.

Data storage is a field that is seeing massive growth, which in turn is increasing the attack surface available to bad actors.

SQL for Cybersecurity

Nearly every website breach that you hear about on the news that involves peoples details being stolen will involve attackers gaining access to a database, often via some sort of SQL injection.

As cybersecurity professionals, being able to understand SQL queries and their impact and what they are accomplishing will go a long way to understanding the threat posed by a poorly protected database.

Who Should Learn SQL

  • Security Analysts
  • Penetration Tester
  • Security Software Developer

Where to Begin

Not every security professional will need to learn a programming language, but it can certainly help.  If you’re unsure of where to begin, or what you’re going to need in your career, then a great starting point is Python.  It’s an easy to learn scripting language that’s useful for almost every career path.

Not only is it a great starting point, but it can allow you to more easily transition into another language when and if you feel it’s necessary.

The more you know about a language such as Python, the more uses you’re likely to find for it in your day to day and professional life.

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