The Cybersecurity Journey | Pathways to Becoming a Top-Tier SOC Analyst

Skilled security operations center (SOC) analysts bring a human element to cybersecurity, allowing for nuanced analysis, proactive threat hunting, and strategic decision-making. Combined with the right security solutions, having SOC analysts at the front line is a key element in building up a strong defense posture in today’s cyber threat landscape.

Combining technical expertise and human adaptability with experience, the journey of a successful SOC analyst is marked by continuous learning, skill development, and strategic progression. Cyber defenders looking to grow a career can read our free eBook, Mastering the Art of SOC Analysis for an in-depth guide on developing the rounded set of skills needed for aspiring SOC analysts. In this post, we explore some of the guide’s best tips on how to move from an entry-level SOC analyst to a leader in security operations.

Essential Skills for Entry-Level SOC Analysts

Embarking on a career in cybersecurity often begins through an entry-level SOC role, where budding defenders can gradually lay the groundwork for technical skills. Entry-level SOC analysts serve as the frontline defenders, tasked with monitoring security alerts, analyzing potential threats, and responding to incidents. These professionals are immersed in a dynamic environment, gaining hands-on experience with various security tools and technologies.

The development of foundational skills in networking architecture, network, log, and endpoint analysis is crucial to success in this early stage. The most important elements include a thorough understanding of:

Networking Fundamentals – develop a solid understanding of networking concepts such as TCP/IP, DNS, HTTP, and SSL. Learning to interpret a packet’s structure and each header field’s role can help identify and troubleshoot network issues.
Network Security Principles – Focus on firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS), and virtual private networks (VPNs).
Hands-on Labs Practice – Use virtual labs or physical equipment to gain hands-on experience in configuring and troubleshooting networks. Examples include GNS3, Packet Tracer, EVE-NG, and TryHackMe.
Network Analysis Tools – Various network analysis tools can help analyze network traffic, such as Wireshark, tcpdump, and tshark. These tools can be used to capture, decode, and analyze packets in real-time or from saved capture files.
Network Traffic Analysis – Practice on real-world network traffic data. Sample capture files are obtainable from online resources such as the Wireshark Sample Captures page or by capturing traffic on a test network. Use the traffic to simulate an attack and create detection rules using a NIDS-like snort.
Log Analysis, Parsing, and Search Techniques – SOC analysts must have a wide arsenal of knowledge on log analysis techniques such as anomaly detection, correlation analysis, and threat hunting. Also, practice parsing and searching logs with different log management tools and techniques.
Endpoint Security – Gain as much experience on Endpoint Security tools as possible and learn about advanced threat detection mechanisms like behavioral analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to detect and respond to threats. EDR solutions provide real-time visibility into endpoint devices, enabling SOC analysts to quickly detect and respond to incidents.

Beyond understanding network, logging, and endpoint essentials, budding SOC analysts should maintain a proactive mindset and consistently build up their collective knowledge and resources to stay sharp. The following tips and resources can be helpful:

Join Networking and Security Communities – Connect with professionals in the networking and security industry to learn from their experience, ask questions, and gain insights into the latest trends and technologies. Online communities such as Reddit’s /r/networking or /r/netsec, or professional associations such as ISACA, ISSA, or (ISC)², can be a great resource for connecting with others in the field.
Stay Up to Date With Industry News – Follow security and networking news sites such as Dark Reading, BleepingComputer, or SecurityWeek to stay informed on the latest security threats and trends. Add threat intel sites like SentinelLabs to your feeds.
Learn from Online Resources – there are many free online resources that can be leveraged to develop cybersecurity skills, including the Wireshark University, PacketTotal, and the SANS Institute. These and other resources can help budding analysts learn advanced techniques like protocol analysis, network forensics, and malware analysis.

Progressing to a Mid-Level SOC Analyst

At this stage, developing SOC analysts are able to comfortably navigate the primary responsibilities of monitoring, analysis, and incident response. As mid-level SOC analysts, the scope broadens, covering a more nuanced understanding of cybersecurity threats and various attack surfaces. A mid-level professional may take the opportunity in their career to dive into specialized areas, honing their expertise in threat detection and incident mitigation, and often taking on leadership responsibilities within smaller teams and some decision-making authority.

Adept at interpreting complex security alerts and correlating data from various sources, mid-level analysts contribute to the SOC by having a deeper engagement with threat intelligence feeds. This involves practicing proactive threat hunting and collaborating with cross-functional teams to strengthen their organization’s defenses. At this stage, SOC analysts should have an intricate understanding of cloud computing and security, active directory security, and proactive threat hunting.

Cloud Computing & Security

Effective SOC analysts continuously work with the industry’s latest technologies and tools. Cloud computing, especially, is of increasing importance as organizations seek to streamline operations, enhance scalability, and stay agile while adapting to market dynamics.

Cloud computing services encompass infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and software as a service (SaaS). Essential cloud concepts for SOC analysts include cloud service models, deployment models, security controls, compliance frameworks, and incident response.

Active Directory

Active Directory (AD) has long been a prime target for attackers. To effectively monitor and secure AD, SOC analysts will have a thorough understanding of AD concepts like domains, users, groups, and permissions.

To effectively monitor and manage AD to identify and respond to security incidents, successful SOC analysts will be fluent in AD security best practices – such as implementing strong password policies, restricting administrative access, and regularly auditing AD activity – and familiar with AD security tools, such as Microsoft’s Active Directory Users and Computers (ADUC) console.

Proactive Threat Hunting

Threat hunting aims to identify and mitigate advanced threats that can evade traditional security measures. Unlike reactive approaches, threat hunting involves human analysts actively analyzing anomalies and potential security breaches within an organization’s network.

Mid-level SOC analysts will leverage a combination of advanced tools, intelligence sources, and their own developing expertise to uncover subtle indicators of compromise and any abnormal patterns that may indicate malicious activities. This process is often iterative and hypothesis-driven, requiring a deep understanding of the organization’s systems and potential threat landscapes.

Becoming a SOC Manager or Cybersecurity Leader

The role of the SOC manager marks a transition from hands-on technical tasks to overseeing the comprehensive security operations of an organization. At this stage, SOC managers shoulder the responsibility of looking at the bigger picture – they are the ones who orchestrate and optimize the greater security infrastructure. This means aligning cybersecurity strategies with the overarching goals of the business.

SOC managers are leveraged by senior leadership as cybersecurity subject matter experts (SMEs). They are often brought in as key contributors to a company’s incident response plans (IRPs), incident investigation processes, and expected to lead the implementation of advanced security measures and policies. The role extends beyond technical expertise and can require:

The ability to articulate complex cybersecurity concepts to executive leadership by focusing on risk management
Managing diverse teams with varying cybersecurity skill sets
Constantly adapting security policies and strategies to meet the needs of the business, mitigate emerging threats, and adhere to changing regulatory requirements

All of these requirements revolve around being able to communicate well. Building strong communication skills involves practicing clear verbal and written communication as well as developing effective questioning skills.

Developing Effective Communication Skills

SOC managers possess proficiency in verbal and written communication and are able to communicate effectively with different teams and stakeholders. Top tips for developing the required skills include:

Using clear and concise language when communicating with others.
Avoiding technical jargon or acronyms that others may not understand.
Practicing active listening as part of effective verbal communication.
Listening carefully to what others say and asking questions to clarify misunderstandings early on.

SOC managers are also responsible for writing reports, creating security policies, and communicating with leadership. Effective reporting uses jargon-free language and overly verbose structures. Short and to-the-point sentences can convey messages quickly and easily, particularly for busy, senior level readers.

A critical part of being a clear communicator is asking the right questions to gather useful information and to understand issues quickly. SOC leaders will often be called upon to gather accurate and relevant information, identify patterns and trends, and collaborate in cross-functional projects.

Good questioning skills include:

Asking open-ended questions – encourage users and other stakeholders to provide detailed information and explanations to fully understand the scope and impact of a security incident.
Asking relevant follow-up questions – it is important to obtain additional details and clarification to identify patterns and trends in security incidents.
Asking contextual questions – look for the security incident’s bigger picture, including the business impact and related incidents or events.

Continuing the Journey

Cybersecurity is a field that is in constant flux and continuous learning is part of the job. SOC analysts can progress in their career by ensuring that they remain adaptable, open to learning, and ready for new challenges. Businesses, similarly, are increasingly aware of the value of skilled security professionals. Together with the right security tools, SOC analysts can keep their businesses safe from evolving threats in the cyber landscape.

To learn more about developing cybersecurity skills, read our free eBook, Mastering the Art of SOC Analysis. To see how SentinelOne can help build your business’s cybersecurity posture and protect it against sophisticated threats, contact us or request a demo.

Mastering the Art of SOC Analysis
12 Top Tips and Skills for Aspiring Security Operations Center Analysts

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