Data protection officer career guide

The overall aim of a data protection officer is to ensure that an organization is following the law when it comes to its handling of personal data. Data protection officers will also educate other members of staff about compliance, train employees involved in data processing, and carry out regular security audits. In a nutshell, a data protection officer wants to guarantee that sensitive information isn’t – or won’t be – misused in an illegal manner.

Data protection officers can find employment in a diverse range of private, governmental, and non-governmental organizations. To gain a position in this field, you will need a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree in a related subject, as well as a track record of working successfully in an IT role. There is also the option of extended learning, which can take the form of a Master’s or cyber security certificate. These extra qualifications will make it easier for you to attain employment, as well as open the door to more senior positions.

In this guide, we outline the daily responsibilities of a data protection officer. We also highlight useful information about the qualifications you’ll need to get hired, what you can expect to earn, and the top companies hiring data protection officers.

What is a data protection officer?

In short here’s what a data protection officer is:

  • A data protection officer is an IT employee who establishes, implements, and monitors measures designed to protect an organization’s sensitive data.
  • They are tasked with creating a culture of data protection throughout the organization.
  • This involves making sure that all employees comply with legislation regarding the handling of private data. Data protection officers adopt a leadership role when it comes to compliance.

The data protection officer – or DPO for short – is a relatively new position for many organizations. The nature of the role is determined by the European Union’s (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). These regulations were adopted on April 14, 2016, and went into force on May 25, 2018. As well as applying to EU member states, the GDPR applies to any organization that markets services or goods to EU residents, regardless of where it is located.

The GDPR has created a need for a data protection officer, someone who can ensure that a company’s handling of private data follows the rules laid out in the GDPR. Appointing a data protection officer is mandatory when organizations are processing large quantities of personal data. The GDPR indicates that it is not the size of an organization that demands the skills of a data protection officer but the size and scope of data handling. While there is some ambiguity about what constitutes ‘large-scale’ data handling, it is widely accepted that most small businesses will not need a data protection officer. That is unless their operations specifically involve data collection or storage.

The GDPR states that the data protection officer should report directly to the highest management level. This does not mean that data protection officers will be managed at this level, only that they must be able to collaborate with senior managers who are influencing how personal data is processed. This helps to ensure that data protection officers can advise senior management on data issues when they need to.

The GDPR also provides a data protection officer with job security. This is because they can’t be fired simply for trying to get an organization to comply with the necessary regulations.

Data protection officers act as the point of contact between the organization and supervisory authorities who oversee any activities related to data processing. The main goal is to protect an organization’s private data at all costs. This might mean that the position sometimes conflicts with the key performance indicators, as well as the agendas of other company departments. As a data protection officer, you will have to be able to work with department leaders to find common ground.

Data protection officer job description

The exact duties of a data protection officer can vary from company to company. They can also differ based on factors like your qualifications and level of experience. However, there are some fundamental tasks that you will be expected to carry out as a data information officer. These include:

  • Informing and advising employees about the obligations to comply with the GDPR and other data protection laws
  • Monitoring compliance with the GDPR and other data protection laws
  • Managing internal data protection activities
  • Raising awareness of data protection issues
  • Training staff on how to comply with data protection laws
  • Conducting internal audits
  • Penetration testing (carrying out a simulated cyber attack to find any vulnerabilities in the IT system)
  • Advising on and monitoring data protection impact assessments (these are processes that help you identify and minimize the data protection risks of a given project)
  • Maintaining records of all data processing activities carried out by the organization
  • Responding to data subjects to let them know how their data is being used and what steps the organization is taking to protect their information
  • Ensuring that data subjects’ requests to see copies of their personal data or have their private information erased are fulfilled or responded to appropriately
  • Prioritizing and focusing on riskier activities, for example, cases where special category data is being processed, or where the potential impact on individuals could be severe. In this way, a data protection officer should provide risk-based advice to an organization.

There are various tools that a data protection officer can use when fulfilling these responsibilities, including:

To carry out penetration testing, a data protection officer may use the following software:

These penetration testing tools will allow you to find weaknesses in the security system that a hacker could exploit. This will provide insights on how to develop a stronger system for processing and storing personal data.

What skills are required to become a data protection officer?

A data protection officer plays a very specific role within a cyber security team. For this reason, they require a specialized set of skills and abilities. Keeping in mind the above responsibilities of a data protection officer, you can expect to need the following technical and soft skills:

  • Solid understanding of the GDPR
  • Expert knowledge of data protection law
  • A legal background, providing you with the ability to understand and interpret complex requirements surrounding data privacy
  • Knowledge about how data privacy laws are applied in case law
  • A good understanding of the data handling needs of the specific industry the organization is a part of
  • Practical experience dealing with real security incidents – this will enable you to provide useful insights on risk assessments, countermeasures, and data protection impact assessments
  • Ability to work independently and autonomously
  • Ability to communicate effectively, both verbally and in written form
  • Excellent negotiating skills
  • A demonstration of leadership skills
  • Ability to embrace changing circumstances
  • Interpersonal and collaborative skills
  • A high degree of ethical integrity (since you will be trusted to handle large amounts of personal data)
  • A strong sense of initiative
  • Organizational skills

Keep in mind that most data protection officers will reach their position after several years’ experience working in cyber security or data privacy. This kind of background is necessary if you want to gain the level of skills and knowledge required to be a successful data protection officer.

How to become a data protection officer

If the role of a data protection officer appeals to you, you will now want to know how you can get hired as one. In the next section, we will outline and detail a five-step process that will clarify how you can get educated, how to find work, and what your career development as a data protection officer might look like.

Here’s how to become a data protection officer:

  1. Work out a career plan
  2. Research relevant degrees
  3. Consider the benefits of certificates
  4. Know where to look for vacancies
  5. Be committed to extended learning

Let’s explore each of these steps in more detail:

1. Work out a career plan

First, we recommend that you draw up a plan that clearly and simply describes the different aspects of your ideal career path. In this plan, you should include information on:

  • How to obtain the necessary skills, knowledge, and insights (including what and where to study)
  • How many years’ experience – and the type of experience – you need in a relevant field, such as cyber security or data privacy
  • Whether you want to work for a private firm, governmental agency, or non-profit organization
  • The industry you want to work in (for example, energy, transport, food, pharmaceutical, media, tech, education, or finance)
  • The size of the organization and IT team you want to work for
  • The kind of work culture that most suits you

It’s always wise to think about these factors in terms of your personal preferences, interests, passions, values, and goals. This will point you in the direction of a career path that you will find engaging and rewarding. If you are unsure of the requirements for a given role, you can get in touch with the recruiter directly. They will be able to clarify any necessary, preferred, or desirable qualifications, as well as the kind of experience you will need to thrive in the position.

2. Research relevant degrees

To be considered for a data information officer position, you will need at least a Bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject. This will provide you with the essential skills, capabilities, and insights to ensure that a company complies with data privacy laws and regulations. Degree subjects that will benefit your career path include:

  • Computer science
  • Computer programming
  • Computer engineering
  • Software development
  • IT
  • Cyber security
  • Cyber law
  • Law
  • Privacy law
  • Data protection

It may be ideal to pursue a degree that combines both cyber security and privacy law/data protection, as this will offer you the most comprehensive education.

3. Consider the benefits of certificates

If you want to get hired as quickly as possible, then you should seek to diversify your education. This will increase the chance that you have exactly the right skills for a given position. This is where certificates come in. There are many reputable certification agencies that focus on cyber security, offering training courses designed to teach you specific skill sets.

An employer might also require or prefer that you have one or more of these certificates before they can hire you as a data protection officer. But you should be aware of these requirements before signing up for any certificate programs. After all, you don’t want to waste your time and money on a qualification that you don’t need for a particular vacancy.

The top cyber security certificates that will enhance your job prospects include:

4. Know where to look for vacancies

Once you have all the necessary qualifications, you will be able to start your job hunt. It may take some time before you find and secure the ideal job. But you can speed up the process by knowing where to find data protection officer vacancies. For example, if you know you would like to work for a governmental body, then you can check out the following resources for job openings:

On the other hand, if you’ve decided to focus on the commercial sector, there is no shortage of great companies that you could work for. Some of the top firms hiring data protection officers include:

  • Kraken
  • Arbonne
  • Hogan Lovells

You can also use the major job sites to find data protection officer openings, including ZipRecruiter, Indeed, Monster, LinkedIn, and Glassdoor. Niche job sites like and also regularly list data protection officer vacancies.

Refer to the salary section below so you can see what the top companies are paying data protection officers.

5. Be committed to extended learning

Given that the data protection officer role requires leadership skills and in-depth knowledge of data privacy regulations, you will need several years’ experience in cyber security, as well as evidence of extended learning. To secure a data protection officer position, regardless of whether you are applying internally or externally, you should try to continuously enhance your knowledge and skills. Consider pursuing a Master’s degree in cyber security or another relevant subject, such as privacy law. You can also expand your knowledge base by taking courses, attending workshops and industry events, and educating yourself in your spare time.

Make sure you let your employer know of your plans to extend your education. They might be willing to partially or fully fund your studies since it will add to the value you can offer the company.

You might think it’s impossible to hold down a full-time job while also studying for a Master’s. However, you can often complete a Master’s degree fully online, meaning you don’t have to travel anywhere to study. Also, these degrees tend to be quite flexible. You can choose part-time education, as well as evening and weekend classes. This makes it possible to study alongside meeting all of your work responsibilities.

Some examples of reputable Master’s degrees worth researching include:

Data protection officer salary

Before you embark on your career path towards becoming a data protection officer, you may first want to know what this type of work pays. Data protection officer positions tend to have attractive pay packages relative to other fields. Since the role involves a high level of responsibility and leadership, you can expect a higher salary compared to entry-level cyber security occupations.

The average salary of a data protection officer makes the investment of time and money into education well worth it. The main reason data protection officers have high salaries is that companies depend on them to keep data processing operations aligned with the law. If data was ever processed, stored, or used in a way that violated regulations, then the company’s sensitive information, ability to operate, and credibility would be at risk.

According to ZipRecruiter:

  • The average salary of a data protection officer is $86,309, which works out to be $41.49 an hour.
  • Annual salaries for data protection officers can be as high as $162,000.
  • The salaries of most data protection officers are in the range of $33,500–$113,500, with earners in the 90th percentile making $142,500.

With the right kind of education, experience, and drive, you’ll be able to aim for the best-paid and most secure data protection officer positions. Information from SimplyHired highlights that some of the top employers for data protection officer roles pay the following salaries:

  • Kraken: $91,000–$120,000
  • Arbonne: $100,000–$140,000
  • Hogan Lovells: $64,000–$88,000

See also: